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Newly-Added Writing Posts: Collaboration, Description, and the SF Ghetto


In and among other work on this site, I’m slowly adding the 50 or so writing posts from my old writing blog, ReidWrite. You can always find the current list here. The most recently-added posts as of this writing are:

A Method for Collaboration
Six Superpowers of Description
That Certain Something
Avoiding Your Story
Oh yeah? (on believability in fiction)
Luc’s Desiderata of Titling
How many light bulb jokes does it take to exhaust the genre?
The Myth of the Science Fiction Ghetto
Do you need to go to college to become a writer?

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Something Completely Different: a New Direction for the Willpower Engine and ReidWrite

About the site

“I feel scattered,” I told my closest friend today when we were out walking on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont. I talked about my ongoing work on The Willpower Engine, my recently-released book of flash fiction, my wish that I had time to work on novels again, and other writing interests and aspirations.

photo by redjar

For well over two and a half years, I’ve blogged three to five times a week at the Willpower Engine about the psychology of motivation and habits. Since April of 2007, I’ve been blogging about writing sporadically at, although the ridiculously intrusive advertising LiveJournal has introduced over the last year or so has made me eager to move that blog somewhere else. These two blogs and the way they separate my blogging attention reflect a similar split in my writing focus: I’ve been doing fiction and non-fiction at the same time, and although I’ve prioritized my writing about the psychology of habits, my powerful interest in writing fiction has meant that it’s never been possible to really focus on only my Willpower Engine writing.

Another problem I’ve faced in going forward with my Willpower Engine writing is that I have no professional background I can point to that makes me an authority on the psychology of motivation. Yes, I’ve studied and written about the topic intensively for years (well before I ever started this blog), and I’ve kept up with a lot of the current psychological research. However, I don’t have a degree in psychology, I’m not a therapist, and I don’t have professional non-fiction writing credits in the area of psychology. I also don’t have experience running seminars or workshops on the subject. What all of this means is that I’m not enough of a recognized authority to have interested a publisher in the nonfiction book I’ve been working on, so even while the readership for the Willpower Engine site climbs week after week and as my understanding of the topic becomes deeper and wider, the aspiration I’ve had of placing the non-fiction book with a major publisher hasn’t gone anywhere.

I’ve also had trouble finding a proper voice for The Willpower Engine. I’m not a therapist and don’t want to sound like one, but I am trying to convey useful information in a way that is easy to understand and make use of without being too dry or abstract about it.

And with my attention tied up for years with the Willpower Engine project, I haven’t been putting any serious work into novels. I’ve seen many of my talented peers in the Codex writers group sell novels and land multi-book deals while my own fiction career has been limited almost entirely to flash fiction written for The Daily Cabal–although admittedly, I love writing flash fiction, and all of that writing has led to a new eBook release, my flash fiction collection called Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories (available at $2.99 from Amazon for the Kindle and from Smashwords for all eReaders).

So I’ve been doing a lot of work that I’m proud of, and I’ve been immensely grateful for everything I’ve learned so far about my own motivation and habits– but at the same time, I’ve been ignoring my own advice to take on only one major goal at a time. From my point of view, I felt as though I had no choice: I’m far too interested in the psychology of motivation to give up my Willpower Engine work, and writing fiction is far too important to me to give up either. What’s more, I’ve had major accomplishments in both areas, like the thousands of readers who come to this site and my Writers of the Future win with my fiction. How could I possibly stop doing either one? I can’t, that’s how. And yet splitting my attention is preventing me from moving forward.

But what emerged in my conversation with my friend (to finally get back to that) was the possibility of merging my interests, focusing my efforts on all of the things that are most important to me and none of the ones that aren’t central. Specifically, while not giving up the idea of writing nonfiction books sooner or later, I can focus on a novel–and my challenge with that novel can be to use what I’ve learned about the psychology of motivation so well that readers of the novel, while not being lectured or taught in any usual sense, come away knowing a lot more than they used to about the subject in ways that they can actually use in their lives. In other words, instead of explicitly offering information in the form of non-fiction, I can weave that knowledge into my fiction, in service to storytelling, and make a hell of a story that also carries some real-world knowledge. I have a real advantage here: very few fiction writers have spent years studying the scientific research on human motivation.

This idea made immediate and powerful sense to me, but I had reservations, especially about the Willpower Engine blog. I don’t by any means want to abandon it, and yet the amount of time and attention that goes into posting three articles a week on the psychology of motivation is too much of a drain to allow me to really focus on a novel. Even one post a week, a bare minimum in my mind for anything I would call “posting regularly,” would take too much attention away.

The solution to that problem is to allow the Willpower Engine to change. It already has hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics relating to goals, habits, emotions, self-confidence, and willpower. But instead of adding more such articles, I’m changing the focus of the blog to write about motivation and writing, motivation in my own life pertaining to my writing, and especially weaving psychological findings into my fiction. This new version of the blog will still have a lot to say about the psychology of habits and related subjects, and some posts may well be similar to ones I’ve posted on the Willpower Engine in the past. There will also, however, be posts on writing fiction, as I’ve posted periodically on my ReidWrite blog, as well as posts about trying to integrate what I’ve learned into my own life and my fiction.

The blog name will need to change: for one thing, it will incorporate both of the previous blogs, ReidWrite and The Willpower Engine. For another, it will have a different focus than either. But I’m not greatly worried about a new name for the blog just yet, or other technical concerns, like how I’ll arrange the content on the page. Instead, I’ll begin to prioritize questions like how I can sharpen my focus in life so that my non-writing endeavors are less scattered, on whether I should focus my career at present on young adult or adult novels, and on which of the many, many, many novel ideas I’ve developed over the past ten years I’ll choose for my new project–if indeed I don’t come up with something entirely new.

I think readers of ReidWrite will find much more of interest here for the foreseeable future. For regular readers of The Willpower Engine, I hope this announcement will not be discouraging. Of course I’m hoping that much of the new content of this blog will continue to be meaningful in those readers lives and to serve some of the same purposes my posts have in the past, but with the change in focus, I can’t imagine this will be the case for all Willpower Engine readers. For readers interested only in articles of the kind I’ve written on The Willpower Engine so far, I hope you’ll find much of use by delving into the 328 posts I’ve already put up on this site and more in some of the similar posts I’ll be doing from time to time in the future.

The new blog will not keep to a regular schedule, but for the immediate future I’ll certainly have a lot to post about, including using what I’ve learned about the psychology of motivation, choosing a novel project, developments in the electronic publishing world, findings from my eBook flash fiction experiment, and more.

To all readers, thank you very much for your support so far. I welcome your comments and ideas and hope you’ll find much to entertain, enlighten, and involve you on the new site.

Luc Reid
January 2, 2011

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A Method for Collaboration

On Codex, we’re having a Collaboration Contest, where writers team up in pairs to work on short stories. We’ve had a variety of contests, and they tend to teach us new things and force us to crank out sometimes very good writing.I’ve been appealing to a friend offline to join me as a collaborator in this contest, and she mentioned that she hadn’t done a collaboration before and was curious how it might work. I’ve collaborated in what for me has been a very satisfying way with fellow Writers of the Future winner Steve Bein, and have a method to suggest. What I’m about to describe is only one way to collaborate, and it assumes that the writers will be participating on an equal basis and are in the collaboration to learn and produce a really good story rather than for other ends. Here’s my informal writeup of the method I proposed to my friend for the contest.

  1. We fire e-mails back and forth, brainstorming ideas for the story
  2. One of the ideas catches our interest and we start brainstorming other elements. Maybe the first idea we came up with was a character in a situation, so then we might brainstorm other characters, other events, etc.
  3. Sooner or later we get to a point where one of us is itching to start the story. This might be very early on, when we barely have the basic idea for the story in our sights, or it might be much further on: we might even work out a complete outline for the story when we start writing.
  4. Whoever is the one who got inspired to start writing first writes to a certain point–anything from a paragraph or two to half the story or even a bit more–and then passes it back to the other person to continue. We continue to discuss the story through e-mail or even by phone as we go.
  5. We continue writing chunks of the story, not necessarily of the same size each time, alternating until it’s finished. (The chunks don’t even have to be written in order, although it’s easier to do it that way.)
  6. When we have a completed first draft, one of us does the first round of editing. If one person did more of the original writing, the other should be the one to do the first round of editing. During editing, we discuss any major changes before making them, but other than that we’re ruthless and edit the stories almost as though they were our own. We don’t hesitate to strike out a beautiful phrase or change a character or what have you even if the other person has done the original work. However, we do this using Word’s “track changes” feature, which is very easy to use, so that if something needs to be restored it can be.
  7. The person who didn’t edit the first round edits it the second round, using the same approach.
  8. If necessary, we continue alternating, editing the story all the way through and passing it back to the other person, until both people are happy with the story.
  9. When it’s time to market the story, one person is elected to be the marketer and keeps track of markets. Both people must agree for the story to go to a specific market. If the story is sold, the money is split 50/50 regardless of word count contributed. Any further direct use of the story (expansion into a novel, reprint sales, etc.) is done only with the agreement of both writers. Both writers are free to write derivative works from the piece (e.g., stories in the same world).
If the collaboration is a novel collaboration, a written collaboration agreement is written up and signed between the parties before work goes far on the book. I have one of these to view as a sample.So that’s one approach to collaboration. Another is that one person will come up with an outline or synopsis and the other will write the story; either or both could do the editing afterward. Another is that one person offers a story to the other that is “broken” and the other rewrites it into a strong, working story (thanks for that idea, Ruth Nestvold!). Another is that one person just begins writing, then passes the story to the other to continue in any way they please at a given point. Yet another is that the writers take responsibilities for certain elements, for instance each taking certain characters or certain kinds of scenes (fight scenes, dialog-heavy scenes, etc.). And there are other approaches.

One important element of a collaboration is mutual respect. Even if the collaboration is between a major, successful writer and an unknown, each has to respect the other’s skills and intentions for the thing to work. Lack of respect or trust is likely to make a collaboration fail.

If you’ve tried collaboration, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences in comments, below.

Added later: By the way, we won the contest.

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Six Superpowers of Description


I was reading a manuscript–a very good one–from a friend recently, and it struck me that most of her descriptions were very straightforward. Common nouns are described with common adjectives, and similes and metaphor are not widely used. To some extent we can argue that this is stylistic, that “dark suit” or “white hair” are perfectly serviceable descriptions (which they are), and that nothing is needed. But this style got me thinking about description and the various jobs it can do, and I was surprised to come up with six. I’m sure there are more than six major things description can accomplish, but six will do for us, for now.

The reason this kind of insight might be useful is that as writers, we may be missing some wonderful opportunities when we use description for only one or two things. In other words, description has some skills that we can put to use, and if we’re aware of those skills, our writer’s toolbox gains some new implements.

It’s true that we can describe things indirectly through action, as well, but for the purposes of this article I’ll deal mainly with explicit description.

Superpower 1: Depiction

This is the obvious and arguably most important job description can accomplish. If we say only “Van came into the room and stepped up onto the couch,” we barely can picture what’s going on, and might be lacking key details that would matter to us. His standing on the couch will matter more if his boots are dirty, or if it’s an old couch, or if he does it carefully versus roughly. “Van came into the dusty room and stood on the broken, dirt-colored couch” gives us a very different picture than “Van came into the parlor, which was as quiet and clean as a church before services, and stepped up onto the cream-colored fabric of the couch.”

There’s always the trap of getting bogged down in unnecessary details, or the worse trap of bloating your writing with too many adjectives, but that’s a different issue and worth talking about separately. For the purposes of Superpower 1, it’s enough to know that our writing becomes more specific and real if we’re using description to depict.

Superpower 2: Evocation

Description can also transcend mere depiction and evoke a response from the reader that will take a long step forward in making the story feel more real and meaningful. Evocation is the art of describing or hinting things in such a way that the entire situation comes to life by comparison with a similar situation the reader has already encountered. Description can only show us specific, limited details of specific things. Evocation, by contrast, causes the reader to draw on her or his own experiences to fill in a huge number of details. It’s much more difficult, but much more powerful when it works.

As an example, above we just talked about a dusty room. If we can instead talk about Van sweeping away cobwebs that cling invisibly to his sleeve, pushing a warped door open with a squawk and doused in a smell like a basement that has been given over entirely to spiders and centipedes, we may be able to evoke in the reader enough connections that the old parlor in the abandoned house will come alive with their own memories of basements or attics or neglected rooms.

Simile (a door as warped as a potato chip) and metaphor (a metropolis of spiders) can be powerful tools here when used well.

Superpower 3: Characterization

Description can give us an additional tool in characterization, not just in describing the outward character (which would already be covered in depiction and evocation), but in skewing the perception of what’s around us through the eyes of the viewpoint character. If Van walks into a room in an abandoned house and we describe the room as “as dead and secret as Tutankhamen’s tomb”, this implies that Van either has a sense of adventure or expects to find something worth finding in the room. If we describe it as “like his grandmother’s parlor might be if it were left to its own devices for twenty years”, this can give us a completely different sense of the character. Using description this way can be useful to suggesting the character’s immediate state of mind, the character’s general proclivities, or both.

Superpower 4: Foreshadowing

Description also gives us an opportunity to steer our reader a little, to raise expectations or provide suspense or misdirect or hint at what interesting things are yet to come. While our job as writers is not to manipulate the reader, it is our job to provide an experience crafted to be interesting and compelling and to suggest certain directions, and description can help in this. If we talk about the room Van enters as “aching with a strained silence,” this suggests to us that something will soon break that silence. If we say that the floor groans and a snapping noise comes from somewhere deeper in the room, we begin to worry about how sound the building is and whether it will collapse on Van.

Superpower 5: Flagging

Description can also be used as a flag to mark something as important. If Van walks into a store and asks a question of a “a cashier engrossed in a magazine,” the lack of detail suggests that the cashier isn’t important and will not be playing a large part in the story. If instead, though, we talk about a slim, spiky-haired girl hunched over a half-crumpled copy of the National Enquirer, readers are likely to pay a little more attention to her and be comfortable with her assuming a larger part in the story.

With that said, good description is sometimes useful to simply add color, entertainment, verisimilitude, tone, or other features to the story. The reader doesn’t necessary expect that the cashier has to have an important part in the story if we single her out for a moment; it’s just an additional option. If she later turns out to be important after not appearing for a long time, though, we will have made a much stronger impression and the reader will be much more likely to remember her and enjoy her reappearance if we’ve described her well initially.

Superpower 6: Style

Finally (at least as regards my list of description’s powers), description can be used as a tool above and outside the story. This is a bit of a dangerous approach in some ways, since it means that the author is putting the experience of reading ahead of the experience of the story. Therefore, this can be an entirely bad choice, and by and large it should be done either for the whole story or not at all, since in a story that is otherwise delivered in as transparent a way as possible, a way that puts the reader there in the events, authorial intrusion yanks the reader out and damages that experience.

With that said, some writers (Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain leap to mind) make a carnival of description, using it as much to show off entertainingly as to push the story along. If we describe a character as looking like a “goat’s butt, with his sad little tuft of forehead hair serving for a tail”, that could potentially be amusing, and if description of that kind is delivered consistently, the reader could find it very satisfying. In the first paragraph of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes a house that “was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.”

Stylistic description seems to be most useful for humor, but it can also be used for commentary, whether on specific situations or on the human condition. It can also be used in conjuction with the characterization power to make a highly enjoyable, sympathetic first person narrator.


I’ll leave it there for today. In closing, I’ll repeat that I don’t think these are necessarily the only powers description has to offer, and I’ll add a caveat that not all six of these powers may be ones that you necessarily should use. Style is the clearest example of a descriptive power that may be best reserved for certain writers or certain types of writing, but it may not fit your style either, for instance, to foreshadow or characterize with description. With that said, I’d urge you to experiment with all six powers to see if any of them might suit you despite being underrepresented in your writing so far.

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That Certain Something


Here’s the apparent job description for “Writer (fiction)”:
Write engaging, vivid stories about compelling characters in interesting situations, structured effectively, that come to a satisfying and interesting ending.

You would think that would be enough, that if you consistently filled those expectations, you would be set and able to consistently sell your writing. And sometimes it is enough: sometimes that satisfies the need. But maybe you’re doing all those things, and your writing still isn’t consistently selling.

Here’s the kind of rejection you get for work like that: “Dear Writer, Thanks for sending me The Great and True Story of a Girl Scout Assassin, but I’m afraid it’s not for me. It was competently written, but it just didn’t have that certain something I’m looking for that raises it above all the other competently-written stories that cross my desk. I wish you the best of luck in finding another home for it. Sincerely, An Editor You Won’t Be Working With”

This is maddening, because it says “you did a good job, but for some reason it still didn’t make it.” Editors talk about stories not rising above the others, of liking them but not loving them, of them not standing out.

So what makes a story rise above its fellows, inspire love, stand out? The intuitive response would be that it does the things we talked about better. The characters are stronger, the plot is more compelling, the description is more vivid. But usually standing out is going to mean something else, and it’s going to differ from writer to writer and sometimes from story to story. The stories that rise above are not just more competent than the stories that don’t, although more competent is always better.

The stories that rise above have multiple, surprising features that hit people where they live. It’s unlikely that some single addition to your (ideally) already competent fiction is going to make it rise above: instead, one feature toward the beginning might make the reader tentatively fall in love (in a Platonic sense) with the character, while another throughout the novel might be a constant source of stifled laughter, and another …

Well, I’m trying to be specific about something that is general, that arises from the special talents of the individual writer. Instead, let me try to offer a list of some of the kinds of things that can make a novel rise above:

  • An exceptionally vivid setting, like Twain’s Mississippi River town of St. Petersburg or Frank Herbert’s Arrakis
  • A character who is fascinating to watch at his or her work, like Tolkien’s Gandalf or Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Frank Abagnale’s self-depiction in Catch Me if You Can
  • An endlessly entertaining voice, like most of Twain’s or Vonnegut’s work
  • An idea that is so rich and fascinating that it helps drive the story and locks the reader in a sense of wonderment that sticks, like Pullman’s daemons or Stevenson’s Jeckyll and Hyde tranformation or Asimov’s Laws
  • Intricate and surprising plotting with secrets and revelations, like Rowling’s entire Harry Potter saga or the movie Identity
  • Painfully important stakes that make the reader desperately sympathetic with the character, like the destruction of the Ring in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
  • A character who inspires an unusual amount of sympathy, like Dickens’ Oliver Twist or Wally Lamb’s Delores in She’s Come Undone
  • A situation that provides wish-fulfillment, like (again) the Harry Potter books or Abagnale’s Catch Me If You Can

There are others, probably many others, but I hope those will suffice for examples.

To successfully offer “that certain something”, there are four things you have to do:

  1. Be strongly competent in as many of the aspects of writing as possible. A few good features will not rescue a fatally flawed or badly-executed story.
  2. Employ not one, but multiple “rise above” features, which could be any number of things
  3. Do all of this in a way that only you can do it, writing with a deep sense of passion for your subject
  4. Make choices in your writing that find opportunities in your readership. (Tolkien had to find the concept of the One Ring highly compelling, but if the idea didn’t resonate with so many readers, it wouldn’t have flown.)

I don’t claim to have mastery of rising above, or even that all stories that rise above do so in the ways I’ve talked about. There’s not even always a clear line between great competency and transcendence. But my key point, I hope, will be of some use to you: a good story is all very well, but what features in your writing set that good story ablaze?

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Avoiding Your Story


In at least one way, a writing project is very much like getting regular exercise: it will go well if you’re making excuses to do it instead of excuses not to do it.

What I mean by this is that if you want to do a lot of something well, you’re much more likely to succeed if you unconflictedly want to do that thing day after day.

Here’s an exercise example, which if you’ve ever wanted to get in shape (or succeeded in doing so), may make sense to you: a couple of years ago, I barely exercised at all. Then I moved to Florida and was able to take up year-round running, which was grueling at first but convenient enough that I was able to stay with it. Eventually it got so that I would feel good if I ran and feel lousy if I skipped a few days. I started finding time to go running even when it was a little inconvenient or I didn’t feel like it, because I didn’t want to start feeling crummy.

More recently I moved back to Vermont and started doing Taekwondo, which has completely replaced running for me. Not only is it a phenomenal workout, but it’s mentally challenging, it’s social, it absorbs my interest so that I don’t have time to dwell on how effortful it is, it’s for specific amounts of time so that I don’t have to ask myself whether or not I should stop yet, and I get to kick the hell out of things. Since my schedule is a little more flexible this summer, I’ve found myself going even on days when I feel tired, on days when I can barely spend the time, or days when I have other perfectly valid excuses not to. The process is as enjoyable to me as the gradual result of getting progressively more fit.

Let me bring this home to writing: writing regularly–every week at a minimum for most serious writers, every day for many of us–is sometimes hard. It’s especially hard when you’re not enjoying the work. In my case, at least, and very possibly in yours, how much you’re enjoying the writing (not necessarily the editing, outlining, or marketing, but the generation of new prose) has a lot to do with how excited you are to see what happens next–even though very often you know what’s going to happen next. For example, in a novel I wrote a couple of years back, there’s a chapter in which the Greek Titan Kronos is released from a pocket universe in the middle of a battle, hoppin’ mad. I could not wait to write that chapter, and it drove my writing on.

By contrast, I’ve found myself in some stories writing something because “this has to happen”. Well, sometimes things do have to happen in a story, but then, they don’t necessarily have to happen in a way that makes me unexcited to see them unfold. And if I’m not excited about going ahead, that’s a red flag for me. Fortunately, there are some quick and easy solutions to that problem. I’ve recently had to remind myself of these and skip back painfully to rewrite a large section of a book because of it. But the pain goes away quickly, because once the problem is solved and you’re excited about the book, it’s no longer so effortful and laborious, but something you make excuses to do.

Here are some symptoms and solutions for fixing lack of excitement about writing a story–which by the way, can often translate into lack of excitement for readers as well, a far more dangerous situation.

I took a wrong turn: At some point I made a character act against his or her inclinations, or I threw in a plot element that just didn’t belong, and it’s poisoned the story ever since. In these cases I need to weed that out and rework the story around it.

Nothing’s at stake: Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel talks about two kinds of stakes: public and private. Private stakes are why something matters to the character. Public stakes are why it matters to anyone else. We have to care about the character and the character’s interests for private stakes to affect us, and we have to care about the world and the problem posed by the public stakes for those to affect us. If at least one of those kinds of stakes (and ideally both) aren’t making us worried about what’s going to happen, then we’re not going to care.

I should skip this for now: This is hard for me to get through my head sometimes, but stories don’t have to be written in order. If there’s a section I’m not excited about writing, I have the option of putting in “Here’s the part where he has the argument with his mother and they discover they both killed someone” and going immediately to the next chapter, where the cop bursts in. Later I can come back and write that chapter.

The danger with that approach is that there’s some underlying problem with stakes or character motivation that’s preventing you from writing it, and you need to sort out that problem before you proceed with a flawed story. That said, if you really can’t find a problem right now, writing the rest of the story may be the quickest route to doing so, or to proving there is none.

I forgot why I was writing the story: If I get inspired to write a particular story (and I’ll talk about inspiration elsewhere, but I’ll say here that it’s not something I believe writers have any business waiting for, but that instead we must find for ourselves) and later let the story degenerate into details of plot and setting and character, I can lose the fire I had to write the thing in the first place.

There are other symptoms that could fall under this heading, but I’ll leave it at this for now and follow up with more in future.

Postscript: Some people may just not enjoy writing under any circumstances, and for these writers not enjoying the process might not mean anything at all. Tim Powers, for instance, describes parts of the writing process as being laborious and unpleasant. But then, Powers writes such enjoyably and mind-bendingly intricate plots that it surprises me his head doesn’t explode.

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Oh yeah?


A few days ago a zebra came up to me and bit me. Just bit me. I live in Northern Vermont. We didn’t happen to get a picture.

Now, you probably don’t believe that, so let me shift gears for a moment and explain what this post is about.

Orson Scott Card, who is that rare combination of a person who can both write exceptionally well and teach writing exceptionally well, describes three key questions that are good to look out for in a reader’s response to a story. I won’t attempt to summarize or paraphrase the great information he gives on the subject, but do highly recommend his books Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy to you. The short version is that these three key issues are understanding what’s going on, believing it, and caring about it. (“Huh?”, “Oh yeah?”, and “So what?”, respectively.)

This post is about believing. Just because something really happened doesn’t make it believable, and just because it’s believable to readers who don’t know better doesn’t make it realistic.

Back to the zebra: I really did get bit by a zebra this past Sunday. My son and I drove up from our home in Burlington, Vermont to Parc Safari, just across the border in Quebec. They have a drive-through safari where animals come up to you to be fed the food they sell at the entrance. They tell you not to feed the zebras, because they bite. Prudently heeding their advice, when a zebra came up to my window, I refused to feed it. I think that’s why it bit me.

My son points out that I was trying to pet the zebra, but I hardly see how that has anything to do with anything.

Now do you believe that I was bit by a zebra? Because I actually was. I don’t know if you believed it after that additional information or not, or if perhaps you have so much faith in me that you believed me at the beginning without any details (in which case bless you, kind soul!), but the fact of the matter is that the more detailed version was more believable than the less detailed version. Four of the main underpinnings of believability in fiction are confidence, inherent plausibility, willingness, and detail.

Confidence: If you are reading a new work by a writer whose previous works you know and love, you are much more likely to give that writer any kind of slack necessary to tell the story. If Stephen King opens a story with beetles crawling out someone’s ears, most readers will accept that there are beetles crawling out of that person’s ears without concern and read on. If an amateur writer whose writing is full of grammatical mistakes starts a story with beetles coming out of someone’s ears, we’re much more likely to say “Wait, how can beetles come out of somebody’s ears? That just doesn’t make any sense!” If you build up a good body of well-appreciated work, you may have to work less hard to get your readers to swallow the stories you’re telling them.

Inherent plausibility: If someone writes about an accountant standing on a sidewalk, that’s fairly easy to accept. If that same person writes about a living blob of intelligent pond scum standing on a sidewalk, that’s a little harder to get past.

Willingness: Of course, if the reader just wants a good story and isn’t in a critical mood, you can get a lot more by that reader with less work. Unfortunately, this is in the individual reader’s hands rather than the writer’s, so it’s best to write for the skeptical and unwilling reader, since the willing reader won’t be overly bothered by the detail.

However, there is one element of willingness over which you have control, which is how compelling your story is. If you introduce your pond scum creature in the midst of a tense scene in which it immediately becomes clear that the pond scum creature may be able to give your main character the name of his birth mother, the reader may care so much about the story that they will accept whatever they need to in order to continue seeing it unfold.

Detail: Detail is the thing over which you arguably have the most immediate control. If you really want to write a story about that pond scum, you can describe it as moving sluggishly, stretching and contracting like a cautious leech, a smell rising from it like dead fish and mowed grass, a thin layer of translucent bluish membrane holding all of it together. As it passes over a discarded cigarette, the cigarette hisses out. It makes a sound like a soaking wet towel being dragged over rock.

Those details aren’t going to make everyone believe in the pond scum creature, but they’ll up your numbers.

Remember that just because something really happened in your experience, unless it has also happened in the reader’s experience, it’s not necessarily believable to them. If I write a story about a man being bitten by a zebra and don’t give some details to shore up plausibility and add detail, readers who have actually been bitten by zebras may have no trouble with that part of things, but readers who haven’t have a good chance of objecting to it.

And there’s the flip side: just because something’s believable to many readers doesn’t mean that it’s actually plausible. Take for example making someone go unconscious by hitting them over the head. According to friends of mine with medical backgrounds, you cannot hit someone over the head hard enough to make them pass out without the possibility of doing significant permanent damage. We’ve all seen people knocked out hundreds of times, but for the great majority of us, only in fiction, TV, and movies.

“So?” you may say. “If the reader believes it, who cares?”

But of course we’re not writing for just one reader, and any reader who knows that people can’t be casually knocked out without the risk of serious damage are going to either think your character is a psychopath who doesn’t care who dies just so long as he gets his caper finished, or think you the writer are kind of ignorant.

Therefore I strongly recommend never using fiction as a source of research about how things work in the world if you can help it. If you want to know about knocking people out, talk to a doctor or someone with a lot of training in personal combat. You’ll win more readers and gain more confidence from the readers you already have … believe me.

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Luc’s Desiderata of Titling


Titles can benefit a story in as many as five meaningful ways, only one of which is based on having read the story already. Therefore it tends to be a bad idea to use a title that becomes interesting only after reading the story (e.g. “Charlie”). In no particular order, titles can (and arguably should):

1. Intrigue someone into being curious about the story (“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” The Da Vinci Code).

2. Give the reader an immediate and accurate sense of what kind of story is coming in terms of genre, mood etc. (I, Robot, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

3. Serve as an easily-remembered and easily-communicated label for the book when telling others about it (Dune, The Hobbit). An easily-communicated title is easy to remember, spell, and say, and is strongly connected to the story itself. It stands out: you remember it specifically rather than something like it.

4. Lend a sense of authority or poetry (“To the East, a Bright Star,” The Once and Future King).

5. Be unlikely to be confused with other titles. This particularly makes one-word titles problematic unless the word is extremely unusual (Xenocide).


  • These rules don’t apply in the same way to movies, in part because there are only a very limited number of movies out at a given time and most interested consumers are exposed to a poster and/or trailer for each, making the title less important except for item #3.
  • Also, many very successful books have “broken” these rules, because of course the book itself is more important than the title.
  • And of course it’s debatable how many people will actually be influenced in any way by a title if they don’t have another recommendation for the book. That said, some readers are intrigued by titles, and a title can be the difference between your book being looked at on a shelf or within online search results or disregarded with the all the other books the reader has never heard of.

Many writers, from beginners to established pros, seem to want to come up with titles that cleverly cap off or sum up the story. They’ll write a story about a magical cape and call it “The Cape,” or a story in which the secret is that the protagonist is really dead and call it “Unsettled.” These types of titles often lose the opportunity to ensnare the reader’s interest and advertise what they’re about.

Titles are much more important for books than for short stories, since a person who is browsing for a book online or in a bookstore, or who glimpses the title in a list, has the opportunity to find out about the book and perhaps buy it. Short stories, by contrast, are usually available only in groups within magazines, anthologies, and collections, and so individual titles are unlikely to have much opportunity to attract readers to buy the work.

In terms of learning to write good titles, I highly recommend exercising this part of your brain wherever possible by using good titles for e-mail subjects, forum discussion titles, boring reports you put together for work, etc. It’s a rare situation where anyone will be bothered by you slapping a magnificent title on an otherwise dull report or a quick e-mail, and the more you work to come up with titles the stronger that facility will be.


How many light bulb jokes does it take to exhaust the genre?


[info]Nadia sent me [info]this (which amused me), and with no conscious intention I ended up writing the following:

Q: How many literary agents does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None; agents don’t make changes for you. If you make the change, though, I think we can sell this sucker.

: How many magical realist writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None: the light bulb just changes, for no apparent reason, into a baby. The baby is calling your name. It’s still snowing.

: How many thriller writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Stop! Don’t touch the lightbulb! It’s wired to a bomb! And my god: it’s ticking! Duck, they’re shooting at us for no apparent reason! It’s a good thing they always miss!

Q: How many mystery writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Just one, and–wait! Someone smashed it!

Q: How many YA writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: You can’t change a light bulb: the light bulb has to decide to change itself, and it probably isn’t going to want to do that. Anyway, who cares?

Q: How many non-fiction writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One.

Q: How many journalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Depends on how slow a news day it is and whose light is involved

Q: How many free verse poets does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One, always and only one, to reach unbalanced toward the empty socket, like a sleeping child’s mouth, round and dark, silent.
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The Myth of the Science Fiction Ghetto


There’s an old and revered legend that circulates among science fiction and fantasy writers, and it goes like this: “A lot of people won’t read science fiction just because it’s labelled ‘science fiction,’ so publishers call some science fiction ‘mainstream’ and then people will read it, but it’s really science fiction.” Optionally, the legend may include “Authors who won’t call their work science fiction are selling out.”

The same thing is said about fantasy; I’ll deal with science fiction here for convenience, but the same arguments apply.

As you can probably tell from the title of this entry, I don’t exactly agree with this idea, and I think the exact reason the ghetto is a myth leads to an important thing for writers (at least science fiction and fantasy writers) to understand, of which more in a moment.

What books are we talking about here? Margaret Atwood (for instance, The Handmaid’s Tale) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five, for example) get a lot of mentions in this context. More recent examples include Maria Doria Russell (The Sparrow) and Gregory Macguire (Wicked).

Here’s how people seem to look at this: if a story is set in the future (like The Handmaid’s Tale) or contains science fictional elements (like the interstellar flight in The Sparrow), it’s science fiction. If science fiction is defined solely by subject matter, that makes sense. But is that the most useful definition of science fiction? I’m big on “useful.”

Think about it this way: as a reader, which of the following is more important for you to know about a book?

A) Exactly what subject matter it contains, or

B) Whether or not you’re likely to enjoy it.

Or as a writer, which of the following do you care about more?

A) A taxonomic classification of your book based on an analysis of story and setting elements, or

B) Who will buy your book.

In both cases, we have a choice between A, which gives us rigid categories that take into account only certain aspects of a book and B, which gives us information about what books are good for what people.

A and B are not equivalent. Putting a spaceship into a story doesn’t necessarily make it appealing to all science fiction readers, and for many readers, how a story is told counts for a lot more than what props show up in it or when it’s set.

I’ll use the term “mainstream science fiction” here to describe stories that contain elements we usually associate with science fiction but that are written for a general audience instead of primarily for science fiction readers.

So, recently a writer friend and I were discussing Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which I’d call “mainstream science fiction,” and Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, a novel that’s clearly labelled and read as science fiction. My friend asked what I thought made The Sparrow mainstream science fiction and Hyperion genre science fiction. My answer was this:

1) The Sparrow focuses on the story and characters rather than the speculative elements. The speculative elements are background rather than foreground.

2) The Sparrow presents speculative elements gently, in ways that mainstream readers find easier to adjust to. No terms are thrown out without indications of what they mean. No speculative elements are introduced simply for coolness factor: they are streamlined to the essentials required to tell the story.

I readily admit that these aren’t hard-and-fast distinctions, but they’re meaningful distinctions to readers.

Here’s the opening of The Sparrow:

On December 7, 2059, Emilio Sandoz was released from the isolation ward of Salvator Mundi Hospital in the middle of the night and transported in a bread van to the Jesuit Residence at Number 5 Borgo Santo Spirito, a few minutes’ walk across St. Peter’s Square from the Vatican.

And the opening of Hyperion:

The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.

In Hyperion, we’re supposed to take a variety of speculative elements (the existence of some sort of Hegemony; big, green monsters; and a spaceship with a balcony) in stride.

In The Sparrow, the only immediate speculative element is the date, and that is immediately comprehensible to everyone. Russell failed to take the initiative to come up with a more plausible future vehicle than a bread van or to create a brand new religious order. Throughout the rest of the first chapter, there is only a reference to a mission to a place (the reader will probably conclude that it’s a planet) called Rakhat, and a mention in passing of the fairly non-speculative effects of travelling at near light speed.

Hyperion has several times as many speculative elements on the first page as The Sparrow has in the entire first chapter. Actually, Hyperion has more speculative elements in the first sentence than The Sparrow has in its entire first chapter!

The essence of mainstream science fiction as compared to genre science fiction is how it expects its readers to deal with speculative elements, their tolerance and ability to grok them. So mainstream vs. genre is a meaningful distinction that is useful to readers, because it helps them select books that are or are not suited to their tastes. Some genre readers aren’t interested in mainstream fiction because it doesn’t have enough wild stuff. Some mainstream readers aren’t interested in genre fiction because it asks them to do things with their brains that they don’t like to do and that their brains aren’t currently good at.

Why is this important to writers? Because while every book you write has to be a book you love, you also have to know who else out there in the world will read it. If you want to reach a larger audience, you have to tell your story in a way that they will be willing to read. If you want to reach science fiction readers, you need to tell the story in the way that they want to hear it told. And these are basic writing choices rather than simply labels slapped on by publishers.

From here we get into trickier questions, like the Harry Potter stories. In a sense, Harry Potter stories are clearly fantasy: they throw out a lot of magical things and don’t explain everything. But they still don’t demand the reader to juggle ideas in the way the usual adult fantasy novel these days does, in part because there’s no attempt to justify the magical system. Thus the Harry Potter books manage to be mainstream books in the same way a science fiction movie like Independence Day, which doesn’t require audiences to imagine anything radically new, is a mainstream movie.

But there’s a subtler point here, which is that if you can make the payoff high enough, you can ask more of your readers (or viewers). Many kids and adults who wouldn’t have been interested in reading a fantasy story under normal circumstances simply got so much enjoyment out of Harry Potter that they were willing to accept his impossible world, just as many of Michael Crichton’s readers will sit still for discussions of reconstructing DNA because later in the story, they get to see characters they care about running from a ravenous T-Rex.

The lessons I take from all this are as follows, then. Rule one: write a story in a way that readers are willing to read it. Rule two: if you can write a story that fascinates people, you can break rule one and any number of other rules. Rules aren’t made to be broken, but you could argue that in writing, they are made to be transcended.

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