Anyway, Malevolent has been out for more than a year now. I would have had the sequel out already, but I kind of had a baby in November, and that always sets back all artistic endeavors by six months. Anyway! Book 2, Malcontent, is in final revisions and awaiting the jaded eye of a professional editor. I thought my loyal readers might like to read the first chapter and see how Mal and Libby are coping with the fallout after the events of book 1.
“You’re going to have to tell your parents eventually, Libby,” Mal said.
It was a hot August morning, and the sky was that brassy white color, like the lid on a casserole dish. Mal was gently wheeling a beehive on a dolly to its new position near the blueberry field. He’d poured so much smoke into the bees that they were comatose.
I leaned against a fence post and folded my arms. “I know what’s wrong with me. You know what’s wrong with me. I don’t need a psychiatric evaluation.” I tried to sound defiant, but inside I was quivering with terror.
In my circulation around the internet, I keep hearing about this book called the Bestseller Code. It’s not out yet, but a chapter of it is available for free on Amazon. Ever curious, I grabbed it and read it.
Here’s the summary:
This sneak peek teaser – featuring literary giants John Grisham and Danielle Steele – from Chapter 2 of The Bestseller Code, a groundbreaking book about what a computer algorithm can teach us about blockbuster books, stories, and reading, reveals the importance of topic and theme in bestselling fiction according to percentages assigned by the what the authors refer to as the “bestseller-ometer.”
Although 55,000 novels are published every year, only about 200 hit the lists, a commercial success rate of less than half a percent. When the computer was asked to “blindly” select the most likely bestsellers out 5000 books published over the past thirty years based only on theme, it discovered two possible candidates: The Accident by Danielle Steel and The Associate by John Grisham.
The computer recognized quantifiable patterns in their seemingly opposite, but undeniably successful writing careers with legal thrillers and romance. In Chapter 2, Archer and Jockers analyze this data and divulge the most and least likely to best sell topics and themes in fiction with a human discussion of the “why” behind these results.
The Bestseller Code is big-idea book about the relationship between creativity and technology. At heart it is a celebration of books for readers and writers—a compelling investigation into how successful writing works.
Intriguing idea, right? How can a computer algorithm pick out bestsellers?
Well, when you dig into it, it’s really stuff that readers know intuitively, but never really articulated. Here’s some excerpts:
If we compute an average proportion for each topic in all the books by each of these authors, it certainly seems that Steel and Grisham learned something from the old maxim “write what you know.” The author who dreamed of baseballbut then became an attorney has “Lawyers and the Law” as his most prevalent theme, followed by “American Team Sports.” Steel, who has been through five marriages, raised nine children and lost one, writes mostly about “Domestic Life,” “Love,” and “Maternal Roles.”
Roughly a third of all the paragraphs Grisham has ever written deal directly with the legal system, and similarly Steel has given almost an exact mathematical third of her pages over the years to the theme of domestic life, or even more specifically “time spent inside the home.”
Grisham and Steel each have only one signature theme, not two, that takes up a whole third (on average) of each of their novels. This likely helps with their branding. All the many other topics each writer employs are used in tiny percentages. Grisham’s second-most-used topic across his canon is American sports, but it is the subject of only 4 percent of his pages, and this average is no doubt as large as it is because it gets a big bump from his non-legal thriller Calico Joe— a book that is entirely set in a world of baseball. Many of Grisham’s other secondary themes are no big surprise: money (3 percent), cops (2 percent), and government intelligence (2 percent).
The less immediately obvious topic, at almost 4 percent of all of Grisham’s pages, is a topic we call “everyday moments.” The name is deliberately vague and undramatic. The scenes in which this topic shows up prominently may involve two people chatting, or sitting on a sofa watching TV, or walking down the street. Not much is going on but day-to-day living. Its presence as number three in Grisham, after law and sports, is important if only to indicate a writer who is aware of pace. Everyday interactions between characters are there in order to vary the pace of the drama and avoid melodrama. It is the kind of topic no one would likely think they read for, but if these scenes that offer breath and reflection are totally absent, a reader is almost guaranteed to complain.
There are other minor topics in Grisham, though, ones that we would have been less likely to guess immediately. These topics, with similar proportions to cops and courts, deal with people in their domestic environments (a top topic for Steel), kids enjoying summer at home (with words like “porch” and “bike”), scenes about relationships (also very important in Steel), and family.
Steel’s top few themes appear to put her characters and those of Grisham in very different worlds. After time spent in the home— a topic whose specific nouns suggest the home of a typical nuclear family— she gives 5 percent more of her storytelling to a similar theme we called “family time.” The nouns in this word group suggest a family at home, engaged in everyday activities: dinner, conversation, rest, love, weekends. So far it is all quite low drama. Her third most used topic, though, deals with hospitals and medical care. This topic is made up of words like “nurses,” “doctors,” “ambulance,” “emergency,” and “accident.” It suggests not the long-term stay of a patient with a chronic disease, but instead the sudden and unexpected event that threatens the domestic contentment of Steel’s primary themes.
There’s a lot more in this vein–analyzing the topics in the proportions. It boils down to “people like reading about people interacting in casual, friendly, intimate ways.” Oh, but sex doesn’t sell.
If we take a cross section of almost five thousand novels— five hundred of which are bestsellers and the rest are not— and measure the presence of five hundred different themes across all of them, then the proportion of the whole taken up by sex is just about a thousandth of a percent. If you then measure the content of bestselling novels (and we will explain how this is done in just a moment), this fraction for sex goes down to 0.0009 percent.
It’s hard to believe. Who would have thought that sex does not sell? We tell people and still they do not believe us. But the truth is this: sex, or perhaps more precisely erotica, sells, and it sells in notable quantities, but only within a niche market. Titles within that genre rarely break out enough to win the attention of the mainstream reading market that creates bestsellers.
We know what you are thinking: “What about Fifty Shades of Grey?” Well, that novel (or those novels if you count the whole series) is one quite rare example of an erotic story that hit the lists. … Contrary to what you might expect given the prominence of sex in TV, movies, and the media, the U.S. reading public public of the past thirty years has demonstrated a preference for other topics.
The algorithm actually came up with a list of things that didn’t sell–at least, not on that snapshot of the New York Times Bestseller list. This is where all my spec fic friends are going to cry foul.
Two notable sets of under-performing topics are all things fantastical and otherworldly. Made-up languages, fantasy creatures, settings that don’t exist, space battles, and starships are all statistically far less likely to succeed on a mass scale than the topics of realism in today’s market.
Still, in the many topics that suggest a realistic world, there are some that are winners and others that are losers. Among the good, the popular, and (for writers) the go-for-its: marriage, death, taxes (yes, really). Also technologies— preferably modern and vaguely threatening technologies— funerals, guns, doctors, work, schools, presidents, newspapers, kids, moms, and the media.
By contrast, among the bad and unpopular, we already have sex, drugs, and rock and roll. To that add seduction, making love, the body described in any terms other than in pain or at a crime scene. (These latter two bodily experiences, readers seem to quite enjoy.) No also to cigarettes and alcohol, the gods, big emotions like passionate love and desperate grief, revolutions, wheeling and dealing, existential or philosophical sojourns, dinner parties, playing cards, very dressed up women, and dancing. (Sorry.) Firearms and the FBI beat fun and frivolity by a considerable percentage. The reading public prefers to see the stock market described more so than the human face. It likes a laboratory over a church, spirituality over religion, and college more than partying. And, when it comes to that one, big, perennially important question, the readers are clear in their preference for dogs and not cats.
This is where I start thinking about the data we’ve been presented. Of course, this is all based on one chapter of a very deep book, and I’m no statistician. But I am a reader, and I have a few theories about why these books sell.
First off, for the lack of speculative fiction in the algorithm–this was based off a snapshot of the 2014 NYT bestseller list. This was, I believe, right after the NYT changed its rules to keep indie published books off the list. (Otherwise it would have been pretty much dominated by picture books.)
The indie market has been killing it in speculative fiction. I mean, the Martian was indie–Andy Weir wrote it on his blog and dumped it to Amazon for a buck afterward. Traditional publishers have declared Urban Fantasy a dead genre. Meanwhile, on Amazon, UF is one of the big hot genres. Watch out, Jim Butcher, here comes Domino Finn and a bunch of others, out to steal your crown.
Science fiction, especially space opera, its going bonkers in the indie realm. So is epic fantasy–dragons, wizards, magic, all that jazz. Over on the kboards forum, writers of speculative regularly report being able to live off their earnings in those genres.
Now comes the speculation. This study found a few big things.
An author spends 1/3rd of the book solidly focused on genre tropes. If it’s a Grisham, people want law shenanigans. If it’s romance, they want relationships. If it’s fantasy, they want the fantastic. If it’s space opera, they want space ships and aliens. If it’s Harry Potter, they want Hogwarts.
This is all fine and dandy. But what separates the winners from the rest of the pack is that “human interactions” thing. We don’t read Harry Potter for the epic battles against the forces of Voldemort–we want to hang out with the Weasleys. “We’re not dumb. We know our names are Gred and Forge.”
In the Expanse trilogy by Corey, the heroes spend a LOT of time hanging out in the canteen of the ship, drinking bad space-coffee and debating what to do. There’s a ton of human interaction along the way.
After Harry Potter came out, I read a lot of the copycats that launched around the same time. They were all big on the action and weak on the heartwarming, cozy human interaction moments. They lacked staying power as a result. Out of the whole pack, I think only Percy Jackson managed to rise to popularity.
The Mitford books by Jan Karon were big on human interaction. Each book is pretty much “Father Tim wanders around a little town and talks to people”. There will always be a mystery to solve or an over-arching conflict to face, but at its heart, it’s just a cozy story. I think that’s why it sold like crazy.
Human interactions, marriage, death, taxes, moms, kids, and all the rest of things that feature in bestsellers–those are all what we call high concept. That is, something that everybody can relate to. We all have families. We all have laundry and taxes and death in the family.
So, basically, if you want to write a book that people want to read, you have to write about people dealing with common topics. But the fun of it is setting it in different genres. (In the second Expanse book, one of the main characters is trying to find his kidnapped daughter. So he crowdfunds his search. The resulting donations and trolling he gets ring absolutely true, whether here on Earth or roaming the moons of Saturn.)
As a reader, I know that I love the quiet moments where the characters spend time with other characters. Seems that I’m not the only one.
Back in my teenaged fanfic days, I decided to write a sprawling epic story. A story that basically crossed Digimon with World War 2. A huge conflict that would put our heroes against impossible odds. I wrote a massive war novel in the world of Sonic the Hedgehog.
In battle animes like Digimon, there’s a progression to the power flow. The heroes fight a bad guy. They get stronger. They find the bad guy’s commander. They defeat him. They get stronger. They find the next rank of bad guy, and on up it goes. By the end, the heroes and villain are throwing galaxies at each other.
If I wanted my heroes to get strong, I needed a stronger bad guy. I needed a scary one. So I went to the scariest villain I had read at that time: Sauron from Lord of the Rings.
Sauron has no screen time. He speaks exactly 1 line. Yet he is absolutely terrifying. As I studied the mechanics of how this worked, I realized that it broke down like this:
Heroes can read Sauron’s mind
His Eye is felt
His influence is felt
His armies are seen (and they’re bad)
His Nazgul are seen (and they’re bad)
He controls a freaking volcano
His power can corrupt people from far away (the Ring)
He can alter the weather
The heroes talk about him with dread and horror
Yet the closest we ever get to seeing him is Pippin’s account of looking into the palantir. Sauron is never described.
After LOTR, I attempted to read Wheel of Time. I successfully bored my way through book 2, The Great Hunt. In the end of that book, Rand faces off with the evil skeletal bad guy who is basically Sauron.
And you know what? It wasn’t scary. It was sort of dumb. Kind of like the first Hulk movie. Once he was on screen, the villain’s threat diminished to that of a cackling cartoon character.
The LOTR movies suffered from the same problem. Sauron is reduced to a searching spotlight outside a prison complex. Not really … you know … menacing.
So, if I wanted to make my Big Bad scary, I’d have to keep his screen time to a minimum.
So along came Leviathan. He was based on the characteristics from Job 41.
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? 2 “Can you put a rope in his nose Or pierce his jaw with a hook? 3 “Will he make many supplications to you, Or will he speak to you soft words? Lay your hand on him; Remember the battle; you will not do it again!
9 “Who can strip off his outer armor? Who can come within his double mail? 14 “Who can open the doors of his face? Around his teeth there is terror. “Nothing on earth is like him, One made without fear. 34 “He looks on everything that is high; He is king over all the sons of pride.”
Like Sauron, he was invincible, except for one tiny weakness. He was this self-healing nanite-based android with a super-computer brain. He made himself into the Borg King and began assimilating the entire world into his cyborg army.
I used my observations about Sauron and followed them closely. Leviathan appeared at the beginning of the story, at his birth, and the end, at his death. The rest of the book is about the heroes fighting his armies, dealing with refugees, and rescuing each other from cyborg assimilation.
Levi, himself, remains off-screen. It builds this growing, horrible dread the longer the story goes. And the more enormous, horrible things that happen, the more his reputation grows. The scarier he becomes. And we haven’t seen him in hundreds of pages.
And it must have worked, because tons of people begged permission to use Levi in their own stories. I read as many as I could find. Everyone wanted their characters to kill him, too. But nobody had figured out how to make him as scary as I did–they gave him too much screen time.
When Levi is on screen, he’s just a robot dinosaur. Oh, he’s strong and menacing enough. But he doesn’t have the presence of doom that he achieves by staying off-camera.
Now, this won’t work for all villains. Lots of times the villain must have screen time because he’s just as interesting as the hero, with his own journey. Or he’s the hero’s best friend, even. I personally love my villains and show them as much as possible.
But sometimes you just want that backstage mastermind kind of villain who stays out of sight. The really scary one. I think Unbreakable said it best:
Urban fantasy and paranormal romance are genre names. They help bookstores and websites know where to shelve titles. They give readers a broad shopping label.
But under the hood, they tend to cross over a lot. Like, ALOT.
So first, here’s a broad-brush definition of each one:
Urban fantasy: A person in a city has a crappy day job, crappy life, etc. They find out they have magic powers, or had them already. They go off to fight black leather-wearing vampires, totally built elves, zombies of various kinds, demons, other wizards, witches, and a few gods of various mythologies. Cthulhu is usually in there somewhere, too. Nobody knows the monsters exist, because the Populace Must Not Know. The fate of the world is at stake if the hero doesn’t stop the monsters.
The hero usually gets to visit the seedier areas of the city in question, taking the reader on a tour of the exotic locales buried in our very own backyard.
In a podcast I watched, a couple of UF authors talked about how the genre is basically updated fairytales. In the old days, the forest was where the monsters lived. If you went in there, the wolves would get you. But today, the city has taken the place of the forest. We all know that there’s places where you just don’t go after dark.
There’s two kinds of UF:
The Spunky Girl also crosses over into Paranormal Romance. She’s the monster hunter, the savvy witch, the werecat, you name it. She kicks butt and takes names. She has family problems and doesn’t need a hawt monster guy, even though she meets one in the first chapter. They get it on. Sometimes frequently.
The Unlucky Guy is also a monster hunter, a wizard, a detective, or so on. Unlike the Spunky Girl, the guy just can’t catch a break. He wakes up in dumpsters. He gets kicked around by monsters. He often runs for his life, chased by magical gangsters. Often he gets a girlfriend, only to find out she’s a monster out to kill him/use him in her political plans. This is my favorite kind of UF.
Next there’s Paranormal Romance.
This usually centers around a female protagonist. She’s either a moody teenager or a jaded adult woman. Either way, she somehow meets a Monster Guy who is Hawt but Dangerous. He usually brings along the Secret Magic/Monster World. The rest of the story is basically Beauty and the Beast, just with lots of different trappings. If it’s a teen girl, there will be a magic high school. If she’s an adult, there will be sex.
There’s a lot of crossover with UF here in the worldbuilding. Usually there will be a city, but small towns feature, too. If it’s a were-creature romance, there will usually be woods somewhere. Sometimes mountains. Rarely deserts. NEVER are there cornfields. Although a werewolf pack battling through a cornfield would be all kinds of awesome.
Twilight is the PNR book that everybody knows, but Anne Rice was writing vampire books long before Meyer was (although it’s arguable that Rice’s books are closer to UF).
Vampires and werewolves are the primary attractions of PNR, although there’s plenty of sub-factions of monsters. Werebears are particularly popular, for some reason. Under vampires, I personally tried out writing liches, which has worked pretty well. (I’m considering releasing the next book at the end of September, if I can get it edited in time.)
Hopefully that clears up the differences between the two genres. I’ve had to read quite a bit before I started teasing out the differences, and I’m not completely accurate.🙂
I was recently introduced to the Writing Excuses podcast. (“Fifteen minutes, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart!”) Always in the market for more tricks about building likeable protagonists, I picked out that particular episode.
This is my current recipe for a likeable protagonist:
Something interesting about the person themselves, whether it be a hobby, a personality flaw, color-changing eyes, etc.
A goal that the character wants very, very much
A need that the character has that they may not know about
This has served me well in my own books. It even works for unlikeable protagonists–people will follow a jerk as long as they have a strong goal. It’s why The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is so fascinating–watching Bogart try to steal ALL THE GOLD is riveting, even though we despise him for it. (Also, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”)
In the podcast, they pointed out a few more important ingredients that I’d never thought of:
They mentioned that you may have a character who is an assassin. They go out and kill people as part of their job. Yet they’re never held accountable for it–never brought to trial in whatever fantasy world they move in.
Responsibility is another big one. A character needs to have responsibilities, even if it’s something as small as feeding their cat. The character needs human connections, responsibilities, things to care about. This is a great way to make the reader to care about them, too. “They have to look after their disabled little brother? Awww!”
Last, we have the stakes. The character has to stand to lose something if they fail to accomplish their goal. James Scott Bell says that it always has to be death–either emotional death (the romantic couple break up!), professional death (if the young lawyer loses this case, he’ll be disbarred!) or physical death (he’ll be sleeping with the fishes).
In the podcast, they mentioned that in a lot of new authors’ manuscripts, the hero is the least interesting character. To my chagrin, here they dissected Harry Potter. They pointed out that Hermione has a very strong, clear goal (good grades). What’s Harry’s goal? Darned if I know. Same with Bella from Twilight (hey, if we knock one, we gotta knock the other).
So that’s my food for thought about likeable heroes. Heck, it works for an unlikeable character like Katniss. She’s not exactly somebody you’d want to friend on Facebook, but she’s got what it takes to break the Hunger Games, and that’s why we follow her adventures.
Interviewer Hank: So tell me where the idea came from for No Such Thing As Werewolves, what’s the story about and how did this idea hatch for you?
Chris Fox: So the basic premise is that legends of mythical creatures have a grain of truth–they come from the distant past. And I tied that in with a science fiction approach, where I wanted there to be a reason why something like a werewolf could exist–a reason why moonlight would cause it to change, the reason why they’d be vulnerable to silver. So I started researching all that stuff, and in the process, really got into genetics and anthropology.
So I invented a culture that is currently something that mankind doesn’t know about. My version of Atlantis, I guess you might say. It used to exist, but has since disappeared. All of a sudden, traces of this culture are returning. It’s heralding a big change in the world–there’s an apocalypse coming. These werewolves are back, and people aren’t sure why. So our main character is an anthropologist trying to tie all these things together.
Hank: What is it about the idea of a distant past, and the idea of these creatures and civilizations that are so enchanting? What do you think it is that appeals to us?
CF: I think it has to do with frontiers. If you look back to when dime novels were popular, people loved reading about the wild west, because it was still an unknown frontier. They could learn about something. The idea that we don’t know everything there is to know about mankind, and that there is this great looming mystery, is very exciting to us. It sort of bores a lot of us to think that we know all there is to know about where we come from as a species and what exists in the world.
I’ve been musing about this for a few days now. The books I’ve really enjoyed have all had some kind of frontier in them–whether it was really interesting world-building, or a cool magic system, or characters with deep, world-shattering secrets. I seriously enjoyed the Expanse books because of all the mysteries lurking out in space. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much my favorite thing about space opera–the mysteries. The frontiers.
So, while thinking about this, I had a thought about why Christian spec-fic doesn’t do so well. I mean, why haven’t the Christian arena produced a Brandon Sanderson, the way the Mormon arena has?
Christians think we have all the answers. Therefore we have no frontiers.
The trouble is, the Bible is FULL of frontiers. Tons of unanswered questions and unknowable mysteries. Just read Ezekiel 1 and struggle as the poor prophet tried very hard to describe a 10-dimensional lifeform. Why do the cherubim carry their life inside fiery wheels? We can’t understand it.
But because Christians have some knowledge–for instance, about Jesus and the Gospel–we think we know it all.
It’s like my son asking for a carpentry kit. I expressed doubts about his skill with hammers, saws, etc. (he’s nine). I pointed out that we live in an apartment, and he really needs a garage to work in. But he confidently assured me that he knows exactly how to hammer everything together. He just needs some wood, and he’ll make a playhouse.
He doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know.
Well, us Christians are like that. We have a tiny bit of knowledge about a couple of mysteries. So we make ALL the frontiers be about those few mysteries that we have solved. No questions are allowed to go unanswered. Everything is spelled out, hammered home, and wrapped up in a nice tidy package.
As Chris says up there, it bores us to know all the answers. It also makes for boring storytelling. I mean, it’s fine if you’re writing a murder mystery and you’re revealing how the killer dunnit. But for a fantasy story, or a science fiction, which by their very nature deal in big sweeping questions that might not have answers–that’s trickier. We don’t like leaving questions unanswered. Heaven forbid that we leave any doubts in the reader’s mind, right?
Yet, doubts and questions are what fuel the imagination. What’s Pluto like? we wonder. What might live at the bottom of the ocean? What’s down there that’s big enough to swallow a ten foot shark whole? Is there a tenth planet that orbits perpendicular to the solar system’s elliptical?
Finding out the answers to these things would be totally rad. They’d also lead to more questions.
I wish Christian writers would get more comfortable with asking questions, but not necessarily answering them.
In trying to up my writing game, I’ve been studying the authors I admire the most. One of these is Mary Stewart.
She was a romantic suspense author whose first book was published in 1955. All of her books have lush, wonderful prose, and suspense that builds and builds to an electrifying climax. Some of her books are kind of odd and experimental (like the telepathic heroine in The Ivy Tree). But all of them involve a lonely girl, a hot guy, a mystery, and ruthless bad guys. They’re such fun.
Anyway, I was reading one of my favorites again, Madam, Will You Talk, to study her writing. They had a lot higher standards back then. Mostly, I’m noticing that where I would stop talking about a subject, Stewart goes three or four sentences deeper. Here’s an example, describing a kid named David:
His face, which in the slight courtesies of small talk betrayed humor and a quick intelligence at work, seemed almost to become older. Some implacable burden almost visibly dropped on his shoulders. One was conscious, in spite of the sensitive youth of his mouth, and the childish thin wrists and hands, of something here that could meet and challenge a quite adult destiny on its own grounds, strength for strength. The burden, whatever it was, was quite obviously recognized and accepted. There had been some hardening process at work, and recently. Not a pleasant process, I thought, looking at the withdrawn profile bent over the absurd dog, and feeling suddenly angry.
If I was writing this, it would go something like this:
His face, which in the slight courtesies of small talk betrayed humor and a quick intelligence at work, seemed almost to become older. Some implacable burden almost visibly dropped on his shoulders. There had been some hardening process at work, and recently. Not a pleasant process, I thought, looking at the withdrawn profile bent over the absurd dog, and feeling suddenly angry.
It would be quite readable, as both plot and character description, but we lose this part:
One was conscious, in spite of the sensitive youth of his mouth, and the childish thin wrists and hands, of something here that could meet and challenge a quite adult destiny on its own grounds, strength for strength. The burden, whatever it was, was quite obviously recognized and accepted.
It takes us deeper into David’s character. Beyond his looks and his secrets, we have a sense that this is one tough kid.
That’s one thing I love about old books. They take us beyond the superficial description of a person, into observations about their character and problems. As a writer, this is one height that I aspire to.
In an interview with Mary Stewart, she says this about the book, which I found funny:
RT: Yes. They’re very involving books, which is a measure of the effectiveness with which you have created that world.
MS: Well, actually this is, if I may say so, the storyteller’s skill that one is either born with or one isn’t. I remember someone writing to me about my very first book, the thriller Madam, Will You Talk?. She told me that she’d taken it up to read in bed. Then at three in the morning, she wrote me a complaint. I’d come to a point in the book where I’d actually brought my exhausted heroine and her hero together, and they’d had an absolutely smashing meal, which I described in detail. She said, I had to go down to the kitchen and make myself bacon and eggs. So, I thought, well, that’s a tribute, anyway.
When I used to write everything longhand, my hand wrote a lot slower than my brain worked. I’d still be forming letters, while my brain would be chewing on the next thing to say, and how to say it. For some reason, this led to long, rambling passages as I thought deeply about scenes and characters.
Now I write on the keyboard. I can type almost as quickly as I think. Rather than this leading to introspection, I flit from topic to topic. There’s no reason to linger on each thought. With longhand, I was stuck with my writing speed, and therefore took each thought a little deeper.
I don’t know if other people are as flighty as I am. Usually I only have ten or twenty minutes at a time to write, so I’m trying to pound out as much of the story as possible. My efficiency goes up, but my depth goes down. Thank goodness for revisions–you’re forced to linger over various passages, playing with the language, thinking of how to make them go deeper.
To my amusement, Mary Stewart complained about the same thing in her interview:
RT: Do you write your books out in longhand, or do you use a typewriter?
MS: I’ve gone through different stages–I used an ordinary portable for my first books, and that wrecked my wrist. I had a very bad time with it. Then I wrote longhand, but that’s slow, and you go nearly mad because your brain is miles ahead of your hand.
When I got to about the fifth or sixth book–The Ivy Tree, I think it was–I got an electric typewriter. It frightened me to death at first, but I got used to it eventually. I used to do the whole thing myself, including five carbon copies, and it nearly killed me. Then I got a dictating machine, and I sent the tapes to a professional typist. I think that must alter your style a little because you can be longer winded. When you’re writing something, you skip bits. I dictate with all the punctuation, but it isn’t finished.
Once I’ve got the typed copy back, I then work on it. What I do is lay the typed sheets out. I have this beautiful paper, the sort that the chap wanted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and couldn’t get anymore. It’s lovely to write on. I do the corrections in longhand, but I can also just mark places with a star. I then dictate it through, putting the bits in as I go, which saves a tremendous amount of work. Then I get it typed back again. I do about four drafts for a book, so it’s still a lot of laborious work.
Every so often I do a goal assessment and figure out how I’m doing on stuff. That sounds totally organized, but it’s not.
School started Monday. If anything kicks my butt into gear regarding organization, it’s school. Not only am I homeschooling my oldest four, but I’m watching another child for the first three weeks of August. He’s also doing school with us. That means that if I want to get anything accomplished, I’ve got to watch my time management. I’m talking micro-managing-Rollercoaster-Tycoon levels of management.
As always, when I’m accessing how I spend my time, I keep track of everything I do over a couple of days. The self-help books say to write things down. I just stay aware of what I’m doing in the bits and pieces of extra time I have–nursing the baby, folding laundry, waiting for people to do their math, playtime after lunch when the kids are occupied, etc.
Guess what I do in those bits of time!
I read Facebook.
Exclusively. If there’s a blog linked on Facebook, I’ll read it. If there’s news on Facebook, I’ll read it. If there’s a video on Facebook, I’ll watch it. Facebook Facebook Facebook. I’d check it when I woke up in the morning and the last thing at night.
More specifically, on Facebook, I scroll through the same statuses, videos and meme pics over and over and over. Every so often somebody would post something new, but not as often as I was looking for it. Oh, and you know this election circus that’s going on? Yeah, I’ve been all stressed out and upset about that.
My hubby had a couple of weeks where he worked some really late evenings. To keep myself awake while waiting for him, I’d listen to Donna Otto’s podcast Homemakers By Choice. One of the things that Donna suggests is to read Facebook 10 minutes a day. Set a timer. She said that it works just fine for her.
Facebook in 10 minutes a day! I thought. Imagine how much time I’d have for writing!
So I made a deal with myself. Facebook was only for the evenings. If I had time to sit and mess with the internet, then I had the time to write. Period. So any time I picked up my ipod, I was obligated to write a couple of paragraphs.
That was two weeks ago. Today I finished the first draft of my fun little dragon cozy mystery. I immediately dove in to revising the second Malevolent book, Malcontent. And we’re not talking large slabs of time, here. This is ten minutes here and there throughout the day. It helps that I just love these stories.
Only reading Facebook once a day means that everybody’s statuses and jokes are a lot more fun to read. I have time to read everything that was posted over the course of the day, including all the horrendous political news. But you know, it’s a lot easier to take when it’s only a few minutes out of the day.
My stress levels dropped. My daily word count skyrocketed. (A whopping 800 words a day! But since I was previously doing something like 800 words a week, it’s improvement.)
So that’s been my experiment in dialing back my social media consumption. I’d rather produce something of value than fill my brain with dumb meme pics that I won’t remember tomorrow.
Kids learn by comparison. They learn to walk, and talk, and use a fork by watching their parents. As a child grows older, they learn to read and dress themselves and drink soda (or kombucha) and eat steak (or chitlins) and watch football (or Doctor Who).
This is just how human beings are wired. We learn by comparing ourselves to others. We pit ourselves against other people, against animals, against the environment, against the stars, in our struggle for mastery and knowledge. This is one of our great strengths as a species.
It’s also one of our downfalls.
The Realm Makers writer’s conference is this weekend. It’s been out of the question for me for the past few years, but I still watch wistfully from the sidelines as all my friends get together for what amounts to a retreat. There’s fantastic teaching. There’s costumes. There’s a nerf battle.
It got me thinking about the way we writers compare ourselves to each other. The trouble is, being a writer is like rally racing. You don’t race the other drivers. You race your own best time. On the surface, we know that. But underneath, our nature is urging us to look at other authors’ writing, or their sales, or the size of their Twitter following, and wonder why ours isn’t so good.
Now, if we take it as an opportunity to learn, then comparison is fine. Everybody needs better tools and techniques–its how you grow. But so often we use it to feed our envy and pride.
I’ve been reading a stack of homeschooling books from the 90s in preparation for this school year. Every time I read one, I get monstrously discouraged. Finally I asked my mom about them, since this was the way her generation thought. These books trumpet the same things:
I grew up in that school of thought, and I don’t like it. Comparing myself to that, I’m the biggest underachiever on the face of the earth. I don’t want as many kids as humanly possible–five is about as many as I can manage. Homeschooling works for our family, but it’s not for everyone. Working outside the home is necessary for survival (especially if you’re a single parent).
Mom pointed out that there were women who killed themselves and their kids because they couldn’t measure up to these teachings. The Quiverfull movement is horrible and is being taken apart for the cult that it is. Too much comparison. Too much groupthink.
So I look around to see what my generation is talking about in homeschooling. The big deal for us is special needs. Autism, ADHD, Aspergers, everything that can go wrong with a child’s brain. There’s a big move toward simplicity–in learning and living. People still have lots of kids, but it’s not the virtue that it once was. Instead of magazines, there’s blogs and bloggers. Many of the modern homeschoolers were homeschooled as kids, but not all. It’s a movement that has grown beyond Christians and into mainstream. (There’s homeschoolers who … GASP … aren’t Christians!)
So I’ve been grappling with not only comparing myself to others, but the clear outcome of groupthink. I have at my fingertips the thinking of twenty years ago, and the results. All I have to do is look around at my peers. In particular, the adults at Realm Makers who as kids were denied fantasy and science fiction. As backlash, they’re walking around in costume and quoting Star Wars.
I guess what I’m seeing is that life has to be about balance. Protect your kids, but not to the extreme of never letting them glimpse real life. Let them read Narnia, but let them read Harry Potter, too. (As kids fantasy goes, Harry Potter is absolutely benign. Christians scream about it, but nobody ever dissects the weirdness in Madeline L’Engle or the So You Want To Be A Wizard series.)
So I’m going to continue with my simplistic approach to homeschooling. I’m going to read aloud Harry Potter, Little House on the Prairie, Wheel on the School, and the Magic Thief.
As John Taylor Gatto points out, every teen is taught to drive a car. It’s a hugely complex task that, if done poorly, results in DEATH. But every teen is taught to drive within a couple of weeks, and they will successfully perform it for their whole lives. Why must math or grammar be any different? They’re just tools to perform a task. In real life, if you don’t know the equation to calculate the diameter of a circle, you look it up. But knowing how to look things up, and where, is the trick.
Today I’m having Rabia Gale guest post on my blog. I’ve enjoyed her books, but I haven’t read this series yet. However, now that the last book is launching, that’s my cue to read them all. I mean, it’s steampunk fantasy. What’s not to like?
Now, without further ado, here’s Rabia!
Thank you for having me on your blog, Kessie!
I’m delighted to have the chance to introduce my series, The Sunless World. This epic fantasy with a steampunk flavor features a world on the brink of extinction. Centuries ago, the ancient mages saved their word from an imminent threat by plunging it into eternal night. But the mages are long gone and the world is slowing dying without its sun. Veins of luminous quartz provide light and heat, and desperate states vie to control this precious resource.
Enter Rafe Grenfeld, junior diplomat and spy. He’s just learned that a legendary quartz pillar, known as the Tower of Light, actually exists. Determined to claim it for his own country, he begins his search for it. That’s difficult enough, but then lost magic, dark demons, a hostile foe, and an unpredictable ally with her own agenda show up.
The Sunless World series contains many elements that are fascinating to me. I love writing worlds where magic exists alongside more advanced technology, like trains and industrial machinery. I enjoy putting characters, cultures, and whole worlds in tough situations (like losing their sun!) and seeing how human ingenuity copes. And I adored writing from Rafe’s viewpoint, a character who is energetic, competent, and prone to making wisecracks.
Without further ado, I’m happy to share the cover of Flare, Book Two of The Sunless World series, with you!
Rafe and Isabella are back
The mages of old saved their world, but left it in eternal darkness. Now it’s time to bring back the light.
After two years of training his magical gifts, Rafe returns home to a land wracked by war. Desperate states struggle to protect their resources of luminous quartz. Magic pulses and earthquakes devastate a world on the brink of extinction.
Rafe’s old enemy Karzov has gathered a band of prodigies obedient to his will. He seeks the power of the ancient mages for an audacious and sinister purpose. It’s up to Rafe and his ally, Isabella, to stop him—and undo the mistakes of the past to put their world right again.
Flare will be out in September 2016!
The Sunless World series
“Quartz: The Sunless World introduces a rich and credible backdrop to the adventures of her characters, with a deadly political mire underlying the bright colours of high society.” – By Rite of Word Reviews
“This story is fast, fascinating and highly recommended.” – Amazon.com review
The Sunless World series begins with Quartz (Book One) and Flux (A Sunless World Novel).
About the Author
I create weird worlds full of magic and machines, and write characters who are called on to be heroes. I’m fascinated by light and darkness, transformation, and things that fly. Giant squid and space dragons appear in my work—you have been warned!
A native of Pakistan, I now reside in Northern Virginia, where I read, write, doodle, avoid housework, and homeschool my children.