Harry Dewulf Teaches Authors

Tell better stories

Page 3 of 5

Your General SF Culture – story influences

Author’s Culture and Story Influences

As an editor, I’m sometimes more conscious of where stories come from than many of the writers whose work crosses my desk. This isn’t a surprise. Story influences are sometimes less important than the stories they inspire.

Nonetheless I was a little shocked to discover that one of my authors, who writes serious and innovative cyberpunky/Dys/U/topian SF, had never heard of The Marching Morons.

I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. Every generation is shocked at how uncultured the next generation is, and reports of this go back at least to ancient Greece.

However, if you write Science Fiction, Tech Thrillers or Cyberpunk, there is some culture you need to make sure that you have. I could go into all sorts of detail on the crossover between pulp Sci-Fi and sociology studies, and professors experimenting with LSD or trawling paranormal literature. Of the Red Menace and it’s relationship with the Alien Menace. Of Sen. McCarthy and Flash Gordon.

But I hope you’ll go do some of that research yourself. Even if you don’t, I’ve selected three short stories that were among the most influential of that mid-twentieth century explosion of creativity and social awareness, that gave rise to modern SF, from space opera to cyberspace.

I won’t give you any analysis of the stories here. I’d prefer you read them, and let them speak for themselves.

The Marching Morons, by Cyril M Kornbluth

Wikipedia will tell you that:

“The Marching Morons” is a science fiction story written by Cyril M. Kornbluth, originally published in Galaxy in April 1951. It was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two after being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965.

This is true. You can read the story in various places online. Here’s one I found today:

http://mysite.du.edu/~treddell/3780/Kornbluth_The-Marching-Morons.pdf

And Then There Were None, by Eric Frank Russell

Originally a short story, it became the third part of his book, The Great Explosion, about which Wikipedia has this to say:

The Great Explosion is a satirical science fiction novel by Eric Frank Russell, first published in 1962. The story is divided into three sections. The final section is based on Russell’s famous 1951 short story “…And Then There Were None.” Twenty-three years after the novel was published, it won a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.

This also is true. You can read the story in various places online. Here’s one I found today:

http://www.abelard.org/e-f-russell.php

Who Goes There, by John J Campbell Jnr

Wikipedia tells us:

Who Goes There? is a science fiction novella by John W. Campbell, Jr., written under the pen name Don A. Stuart. It was first published in the August 1938 Astounding Science-Fiction.

In 1973 the story was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written. It was published with the other top vote-getters in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two.

The novella has been adapted four times as a motion picture: the first in 1951 as The Thing from Another World; the second in 1972 as Horror Express; the third in 1982 as The Thing directed by John Carpenter; and most recently as a prequel to the Carpenter version, also titled The Thing, released in 2011.

In my opinion, none of the movie adaptations captures the atmosphere, nor the fundamental message, of the short story.

A quick search of the internets found a .pdf of it here:

http://www.pulpmags.org/PDFs/AS_1938_08.pdf

3 Kinds of Smarts

An Unfinished Definition

A while ago – a fair while ago, I wrote a series of blog posts detailing the major difference between types of mental competence. I talk about intelligence, cleverness, cunning and wisdom.

That post is all about what the words mean, where they come from, and how those types of intelligence are applied, as a means of making sense for a reader when describing your characters actions and behaviors.

Earlier this week I saw a Quora question (for which I had no adequate answer), and it set me thinking about my original posts, in particular, about what was missing from them.

I eventually concluded that there are, culturally speaking, 3 kinds of “smarts,” and the differences between how and when they are applied arise largely from the differences in how, when and where they are learned.

So I came up with a new set of definitions for this trichotomy, but before I tell you all about them, a quick warning: certain cultures, including, until recently, Western culture, see education or personal development as a combination of all three. I’ll tell you all about that at the end.

  • street smarts
  • book smarts
  • age smarts

Street Smarts

Generally most associated with words like “clever” and “cunning,” street smarts are the ones you have to learn fast in order to survive. So the nature of street smarts varies very widely. The Street Smarts of an African Bushman and a member of a Nairobi street gang probably both include information about finding food and avoiding danger, but in strikingly different ways. The similarity is that they both had to learn these things as fast as they could, in order to protect themselves and their friends and family, and in order to subsist in the short term. Street Smarts are essential in every lifestyle, everywhere on the planet. A university professor who wants, one day, to get tenure, will have to use his street smarts to learn and negotiate faculty politics. A steel mill or oil rig worker will get all sorts of safety training, but won’t be completely safe until she’s used her street smarts to learn to negotiate and balance all the risks and dangers in those complex and difficult environments.

Street Smarts is excellent for solving urgent, simple and short term problems. Sometimes a street smart solution creates a new problem.

Everyone has street smarts.

It’s a common and frankly harmful stereotype that the hero, being noble in spirit, lacks street smarts, and has to acquire Artful Dodgers to help him through certain environments. This trope is common in every kind of story. But a better story has the hero dropped into an unfamiliar environment, and shows the process of his learning the necessary street smarts to make it out again.

There’s a pervasive Hollywood myth that computer hacking is a kind of highly creative street smarts. This is bollocks. The best hackers are passionate, dedicated, sometimes a little obsessive, and profoundly BOOK SMART.

Most people understand street smarts instinctively.

Book Smarts

Generally associated with words like “intelligent” and “educated,” book smarts are learned through formal education. Teachers who are trained to teach pass on their knowledge and skills in a structured process and an institutional environment; academics who are trained in study conduct research and write textbooks that you can learn from. Book smart people have information at their fingertips on their specific field, but they also become very good at spotting connexions and thereby making insights and paradigm shifts. Book smarts is excellent at finding solutions to complex problems.

Book smarts solutions are often restricted to the specific problem they were devised to solve.

Book smarts have to be deliberately acquired and are best acquired voluntarily.

How much book smarts you have will have an effect on your understanding of what book smarts is. If a character has very little education, they will tend to think that book learning is about remembering lots of facts (they may also think this if they are a politician, but that just means they didn’t understand what their own education was about). But true book learning is both information, understanding AND synthesis. Synthesis is the capacity to see the relationships between different information from different sources, to compare it, and to build new knowledge from it. It is the foundation of all the advancement in knowledge and culture, and the real reason why education is important.

Age Smarts

Age Smarts are most commonly associated with the word “wisdom.” Experience alone is not enough to create age smarts. If you’re young, you may become something called “street wise” but all this means is that you have a lot of experience of some specific street smarts, that makes you seem wise to the people around you of a similar age to you. Age smarts comes with age alone. But age alone is no guarantee of acquiring age smarts. The people who become wise seem to be those who either dedicate their lives to a specific cause, or spend their entire lives perfecting one skill, or just spend their entire lives in the same place, doing the same thing. This seems to be true in any context. It also seems to help if you cultivate and preserve an openness to new ideas.

This means that age smarts may make you very wise about some things, but ignorant or naive in others. A crucial element of wisdom, therefore, is recognising the limitations of your age smarts.

Age smarts provides long term, often very simple, solutions, to all kinds of problems. Age smarts solutions are often the most efficient solutions to problems. Partly this is because the best way to find a more efficient solution is trial and error, and trial and error requires time.

Most people recognize age smarts in others readily, but have difficulty seeing it in themselves. The young assume they have it long before they do; the old always assume they don’t have it yet. This is a horrible cliché, no matter how often it seems to be true. Feel free to subvert it.

The Path To Enlightnement

Medieval Apprenticeship was very similar to Wushu masters (in the Wuxia genre), in that it involved a combination of all three types of smarts, over a period of time. No one thought smarts of any kind was something you just have. But at the same time, no one thought you could only learn book smarts, or that the only learning of any value was book smarts (which seems to be the current obsession in Education). Medieval Craftsmen, much like kung fu masters, learned their mastery in three stages.

First the apprentice, who has to work hard and learn hard and learn fast. It’s a combination of street and book learning, both literally and figuratively. The kung fu novice has to perform all sorts of menial tasks as well as do his hours of training; only a combination of the agility of street smarts and the discipline of book smarts will enable him to get everything done.

The second stage is as a journeyman – a day worker, or casual laboror, but it’s anything but casual. The craftsman must find masters who will take him on to help them in their work, and he’s paid a day at a time, so he better be good at what he does. If he wants to be come a master craftsman, he must learn from as many masters as possible, so he must travel and work. Again, a combination of street and book smarts sees him through. In the wuxia story, the hero becomes a wanderer, seeking people in difficulty and offering help to them, as he tries to solve some personal problem. He must gain a rapid understanding of people and their problems, but will learn more from his failures than from his successes.

The final stage is to prove your mastery. It is accepted in both cultures that a key element in becoming a master is time. Only once you have been a practitioner for many years, can you aspire to mastery, because many years practice is what it takes to master a skill.

(Some stories – in fact, many modern stories, have characters who are ‘naturally gifted at a young age.’ You should be aware that those stories are fantasies, and fit into one of two categories; they are either parables for adolescent coming of age, or they are escapist, adolescent wish-fulfilment. Nothing wrong with either, but be aware that stories are rarely what they seem to be.)

The Medieval Craftsman must make his Masterpiece. It’s a typical peculiarity of language that we use the word ‘masterpiece’ to mean ‘the greatest work an artist has ever made,’ but to a master craftsman, it’s just proof of his skill, and in fact, everything he makes afterwards will be even better.

The wuxia hero must defeat his disgraced former master/defeat his murdered master’s killer/acquire the famous artefact/reach enlightenment to become a master himself. After he does, he can set up a school, and take students, and grow his beard long and white.

These two traditions both say that the path to mastery is to use all three forms of smarts; to learn in all three ways. To combine, Street, Book and Age to reach Mastery.

Poetry Challenge Week One – Western Haiku

The Western Haiku is a simplified version of a traditional Japanese poem, also known as hokko.

Length:

1 stanza.

Arrangement:

Stanza of 17 syllables in 3 lines.

1 line of 5 syllables
1 line of 7 syllables
1 line of 5 syllables
(5, 7, 5)

Content:

Traditionally, a haiku is observation or commentary on a single topic, often from two different and sometimes conflicting points of view.

Example:

The wind blows too strong
Unripe fruit falls from the trees
The mill grinds faster.

 

Poetry Challenge – Introduction

Everyone Thinks They Know What Poetry Is

… and what it is for.

Even those who are fanatical about it, who can quote lines, or whole poems, of their favorite poet. Who have shelves stuffed to the mixed metaphors with waxed hardcovers, AEG (all edges gilt) and an inset color plate on the front, probably of a posy.

I’m assuming you’re a writer, so if you’ve never given it much thought, you probably think the same as everyone else about poetry: that it’s a specialized form of artistic expression where an artist (called a ‘poet’) uses language alone to conjure truth, beauty and love.

Or horror, ugliness and hate; either way, poetry is all about using specialized language (often called heightened) in order to find a means of expressing problematic or difficult topics, or just to express thoughts, feelings and words that seem to go beyond normal language.

If you have given it some thought though, you’ll soon come to a crucial conclusion: if a poet is going to achieve this aim, then…

They Better Be Pretty Damn Good At Using Language

Actually, there are two groups of people who know what poetry is really all about:

  1. One group you’re probably aware of, dimly. They’re the people who go to public poetry nights, where groups of enthusiasts get together and read their latest stuff to an audience. It may seem pretty niche, but those folks have some serious courage (read: balls of steel). And they also know that writing something that is even close to good enough to be read aloud to an audience is a serious challenge; and the ones who step up to the challenge soon learn what poetry is really about.
  2. The other group is other writers who are keeping quiet about the truth they already know:

    Poetry is the ultimate means of becoming a master of your language.

    And if you want to be a professional writer, of any kind, you better want to become a master of your language.

How Does It Work?

It works by teaching you to think about language in new ways. It forces you outside the box, drives you out of your comfort zone, and takes you to a place where every word matters, in its meaning, its sound, its shape, it’s spelling and it’s precise position among other words.

Now, poetry can eventually become about making beauty through language.

But before you can do that, you have to learn how to achieve an objective, within a set of arbitrary rules. Every time you meet the objective within the rules, you will have expanded your capacity to use your language, and developed your capacity to step beyond the boundaries.

You’ll have learned more; about reaching for the right word, about the way that sound and rhythm contribute to affecting the reader in prose, how words can be stark and plain, but how associating the right words and sounds in the right places, bark the right word and the reader will feel your pain, and hark, again and again, not only to the immediate sense of your words, but to the broader sense of your meaning, and the broadest sense of what you want the reader to feel.

That Is Why I Have Created This Poetry Challenge

As the challenge progresses it becomes more complex and more difficult. But do it in order and you will feel your linguistic ability expand into a new space, and challenges that today seem impossible will become possible through working your way through earlier challenges.

The Poetry Challenge is divided into three sections. Beginner and Intermediate are freely available right here (and will be published over the next 30 weeks – starting today, January 4th, 2016).

The most advanced lessons, in the Iron Poet Challenge level, are available only as part of a complete course that you can get for a one-time fee of $97, or you can get the entire course (with supplemental audio lessons, and the joy of hearing me declaim my original works in my delicious British accent) inside the Library for only the cost of monthly membership.

Not a member yet? Grab a Library Card today and join the other members taking the Iron Poet Challenge!

The Basic Rules

Poetry is structured language. Each poetic form is defined by a set of rules. The vast majority of poetic forms are defined using one or more of three types of rule:

  • Syllable count
  • Rhythm
  • Rhyme

Syllable count and rhythm combine to form what we call scansion – which is the distinctive rhythmic structure of a poetic form.

Syllable Rules

A syllable is a unit of sound*. All words are composed of syllables. Typically a syllable contains one vowel sound, with one or more consonants.

“hat” is one syllable.
“water” is two syllables.

Syllable rules in poetry dictate how many syllables a poem may have in total, and may also dictate the number of syllables per line.

_____
* if you have studied linguistics, you will recognise that this is glossing over an abyss of knowledge. But fortunately, not everyone has studied linguistics.

Rhyming Rules

In poetry, rhyme is when words at the same place on different lines (usually the last word in a line) share the same final syllable, or several syllables, or vowel sounds, or have very similar syllables.

Rhyme is usually described as a pattern. Patterns are usually represented by uppercase letters, each of which stands for a shared syllable.

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see

Sound and found rhyme; me and see rhyme. To describe the pattern, we call the first rhyme “A” and the second rhyme “B”, and describe the pattern as ABAB.

When the rhyming word is repeated, the letter is underlined: ABAB indicates that the second and fourth lines end in the same word.

When a whole line is repeated, it is numbered: AB1AB1 indicates that the second and fourth lines are the identical.

Rhythmic Rules

Rhythm in its simplest form arises from the characteristics of syllables. Syllables may be either long or short and either stressed or unstressed. In some poetic forms, long syllables are considered the same as stressed syllables, and short syllables are considered the same as unstressed syllables.

Formal Notation

There are many systems of notation for representing the rhythmic pattern in poetry. I favour the classical form since that was the first one I learned. It uses four main symbols:

¯ “macron” (also written above a letter “Ā”) – a long or stressed syllable (tum)
˘ “breve” (also written above a letter “Ă”) – a short or unstressed syllable (ti)
A long or short syllable that may be stressed or unstressed is known as an “anceps” to scholars of classical and old-English poetry. Various symbols are used for it, and in Tumpty Notation (see below) it is called ‘tim.’

// caesura (a pause)

So what is meant by long and short, stressed and unstressed?

Ămāzĭng Grāce hŏw swēet thĕ soūnd

Most of the time it’s no more complicated than the length of the sound itself. The four lines of the first verse of Amazing Grace can therefore be written as follows:

˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯
˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯
˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯
˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯

Tumpty Notation

There’s a clear pattern here. When speaking aloud, I find the easest way to identify a rhythmic pattern is using “tumpty notation”. In this case, Amazing Grace is rendered as:

ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum

Specific combinations of short and long syllables have names. For instance, ti-tum is known as an iamb, tumpty is known as a trochee. Collectively these are known as feet.

A pattern of feet is known as a metre. Amazing grace has two alternating metres. An iambic tetrametre is what we call four iambs. An iambic trimeter is what we call three iambs.

A Couple of Other Terms

In poetry, verse refers to any text that is consciously written poetically. In many situations, the word verse is synonymous with the words poem and poetry.

A paragraph in poetry, which roughly corresponds to the verse of a song, is known as a stanza. This is mostly useful to avoid the confusing use of the word verse by poets, though many poets will get downright uppity if you use the word verse instead of the word stanza. You have my permission to tease them about this.

“Ornamentation” is a general word given to any additional rules added to a poem. Rhyme is often considered ornamentation, while rhythm and syllable count usually are not.

What To Expect

Over the next thirty weeks, you’ll find a new Poetry Challenge update every Monday. The Beginner section is only the first ten forms, which are all very approachable.

Post your work after each challenge so we can monitor your progress and give you feedback.

Best of luck to everyone.

This series is so long, it needed it’s own navigation!

 

The 8 Rules of Naming

WhoThing and WhatHer

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.

Where the Concept Breaks

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.

The Rules of Names

  1. The reader must be able to pronounce any name of any thing first time, with no doubt.
  2. All the names in the book, whether people, places or things, must differ from each other by at least two syllables unless there is an intended connexion:
    • Abteba and Binteba are brothers
    • Connomakovan and Connotekana are men from the city of Conno
  3. Spelling must be simplified:
    • Letters that serve no purpose in English must be missing:
      Jon not John, Fin not Finn, therefore Tan not Tahnn
    • If there is more than one way to write the name, use the one that uses the least letters:
      Fin not Phin, Teen not Teene, Jon not Gion (or Gyon)
  4. Names must follow typical English patterns and avoid English irregularities.In general, vowels and consonants should alternate. Where consonants are grouped, they must be limited to the most common two and three letter groupings, and the ones that are easy to say:
    • ‘hard’ consonants preceded or followed by ‘r’
    • ‘pt’ but not ‘tp;’ ‘kt’ (or ‘ct’) but not ‘tk’
    • ‘nk’ and ‘nt’ but not ‘kn’ or ‘tn’ (generally, rules that apply to k also apply to g; those applying to n also apply to s and l, however ‘f’ may only be conbined with t, not k)
    • ‘mp’ but not ‘np,’ ‘pm’ or ‘pn’
    • ‘sh’ and ‘th’ are fine, but prefer ‘ch’ to ‘tsh’ (and ‘ph’ is banned)
    • ‘gh’ and ‘ght’ are banned.
    • no soft ‘c’ or soft ‘g’, use s and j unless it looks really silly
    • ‘z’ always buzzes. If you need a ‘ts’ use ‘ts’
    • avoid ‘h’ where possible
    • prefer ‘kw’ to ‘qu’ unless it looks too exotic or fussy, never use q on its own
    • avoid w between vowels
    • avoid diphthongs that use vowels other than w and y (it is a convention in English to call w and y consonants. They are not.)
    • No double vowels other than ‘ee’ and ‘oo.’ Be aware that ‘nook’ is not pronounced like ‘noon.’
  5. It is better that your reader pronounce the name ‘wrong’ than be unable to pronounce it.
  6. If you can’t find a way of spelling the name that ensures that the reader can pronounce it correctly, change the name, rather than just using the spelling you’ve always used.
    The ‘long a’ sound is a common problem in English. In British English it’s the sound in the word ‘barn.’ In US English (with quite a lot of regional variation) it’s the sound in the word ‘gone’ (or ‘barn’ if you’re from Rhode Island). There is no adequate way of ensuring that any English speaking reader will pronounce a long ‘a’ as you intend it. So change the name.
  7. No English names have punctuation in the middle of them.
    An apostrophe at the start of the name is acceptable if there is a cultural reason for it, as are many other abuses of the rules – if you break the rules in a way that adds meaning, it will enrich the experience for the reader, as long as rule 1 is not violated.

    • C’Makovan and C’Tekana are abbreviations of Connomakovan and Connotekana.
  8. Paradoxically, the rules can be relaxed if the characters are originally from Earth.

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.

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.

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.

10 Steps for Handling POV Like a Boss

When you’re ready to do character thoughts with sarcasm, you know you don’t need to think about POV any more.

POV Like a Boss Checklist

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.

The First Rule of POV…

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…

POV is the Enemy of Good Writing

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.

All Narration is 3rd person, Past Tense, Omniscient Narrator

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.

Exotic Voices

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.

Passing Unnoticed

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.

POV Avoidance

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.

Oversimplification

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).

Back To Free Indirect

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.

Reader Complicity

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.

Sarcasm

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.

POV Like a Boss Checklist

  1. One main character per story
    • Can be per book for a serial
    • Can be per thread or arc for a longer book
  2. Don’t think about POV
  3. Don’t choose the POV at a chapter level
  4. Use strict POV when-and-only-when you need to control the flow of information
  5. The reader should not notice that you are using POV even when you are
  6. Think about what the reader needs to know and how best to reveal it
    • as an author, you’re allowed to think outside the characters’ headspace
  7. Let your reader get to know character by observation
  8. Share your character’s weaknesses and values through incidents and challenges
  9. Build complicity by ensuring that the reader knows enough of the character’s inner life
  10. Once the reader knows the character well, draw attention to details known only to the reader
  11. BONUS: If you get the opportunity, use this to make the reader laugh, smile or nod knowingly
« Older posts Newer posts »