Creativity Boot Camp

Listen up, you dull, lazy, unimaginative bores! I’ve got exactly one blog post to whip your sorry, uninspired butts into the most steely-eyed, creative writers who ever scribbled for this great country.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drill_instructor

What’s that? Did I hear one of you say you’re just not creative? First of all, no talking in ranks. Second, you were creative once, back when you were three to five years old. You were uninhibited, freewheeling, and super-creative then. What happened to you? Get intimidated by a little criticism? Did adults often tell you that you were wrong? Did they tell you to stand or sit in neat, straight lines…?

Hmmm. Okay, new formation. I want you to sit, stand, or lie down facing in any direction you want. Still no talking, though. You will listen to everything I tell you. You will do everything I tell you, and you will become more creative. Do you understand? The proper response is ‘Yes, Drill Sergeant!’ I can’t hear you!

To allow for possible penetration into your feeble brains, I will keep these techniques simple. When faced with a writing problem, any writing problem, use these methods. They will work when you believe you can’t think of a story idea, create a compelling character, describe a setting, or get yourself out of a plot hole.

 

  1. Give me ten. No, not sit-ups. Write down ten ways to restate your problem. Sometimes seeing the question a different way helps in finding an answer.
  2. Give me twenty. No, not pushups. Write down twenty solutions to your problem. Do not stop until you get to twenty. Do not criticize your solutions, no matter how stupid they are. Remember, a stupid idea can inspire a good one.
  3. Move your lazy behind. I mean move Go for a run, or a walk. Your body and brain are one. Moving one will move the other.
  4. Go somewhere else. Move your rear end to a different place. A different room. Outside, maybe. Find a place that stimulates you, where you feel more creative.
  5. Doodle, or do focused doodling like the 30 Circle Test.
  6. Draw a mind map of your problem.
  7. Look at your problem from three perspectives. No, I can’t tell you which three without knowing your problem. It could be three characters, three physical directions, three time periods, or three other perspectives. You figure that out from the nature of your problem.
  8. Shut up. Literally. Go to a quiet place. No TV. No radio. No rug-rats. Quiet. Maybe you’ve been too distracted for the answer to come to you.
  9. Approach your problem using all your senses. You have five of them, most of you. Sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste.
  10. Quit sitting on your hands and use them to build something. Build a model of your problem, with an Erector Set, Legos, modeling clay, Silly Putty, Play-Doh, or Tinkertoys. If you see your problem in a physical way and shape it with your hands, you may think of a solution.
  11. Listen to music. What? How should I know what kind of music will work for you? That’s for you to figure out.
  12. Get help. We leave no writer behind in this outfit. Ask other writers you know, or members of your critique group, if you have one. They may think of answers you haven’t thought of. Remember to help them when they ask, too.

Do not think I came up with these ideas by myself. I got them from experts. You will visit their websites and review the information there. See the postings by Larry Kim, Michael Michalko, Christine Kane, Christina DesMarais, and Dr. Jonathan Wai. Also this article on WikiHow, and this TED talk by Tim Brown.

These techniques I’ve attempted to impart into your mundane, unoriginal skulls will increase your creativity. They will make you a better writer. They will make you feared by your competitors. They will save your writing career. Memorize them and practice them.

Ten-hut! You’re dismissed. Get out there and be creative writers. Never forget what’s been taught to you by your Drill Sergeant—

Poseidon’s Scribe

4 Rules for Assembling a Planet

Millions of my fans well remember when I first posted back on February 24, 2013 about assembling a planet. That seminal blog post dominated the news and captivated the world (our world, the real Earth, I mean).

Why revisit the topic, then? Has the process of world-building changed? Well, some links in that previous post don’t work, and it’s time for an update with some better information.

Pixabay.com, image #1275774

 

 

Here you are, ready to write a story set in a world different from ours, and you want to know how to do it. Or you’re partway through writing the story already, things aren’t working out, and you want to know where you went wrong.

You can get good information from reading the Wikipedia article on world-building. Roz Morris’ post on the topic encapsulates her advice into three rules. Ruthanne Reid posted a fine article discussing approaches to world-building. What follows is my view of the topic, but you should review these other sources, too.

Here are my four rules for creating a world for your story:

  1. Think through the consequences. You’ve thought of some interesting and original ways that your world is different from the real one…great. But have you thought through the ramifications? Think of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Arrakis, the desert world. Herbert thought through the implications of that type of climate on people’s behavior, clothing, lifestyle, and other animal life.
  2. Set limits on your magic or technology. Sure, it’s fun to imagine a world of amazing magic or super-advanced technologies. But add some constraints. If your protagonist is some all-powerful wizard, then she or he could simply wave a wand and resolve the conflict in the opening scene. Story over.
  3. Make your world clear to readers. Authors who set their stories in the real world have it relatively easy. They can assume readers understand the rules and norms. They needn’t spend many sentences describing the Earth we know. You don’t have that luxury. You’ll need enough (but not too much!) descriptive text to transport readers to your world.
  4. Be consistent. Sure, you’re thinking, you’ll remember the rules of your world as you’re writing your story. I wouldn’t add this as one of my rules if it were that easy. For some reason, there’s a tendency to forget and slip back into our own world.

Armed with my rules, you should now be ready to get out there and build your own world. It’s freely provided services such as this that makes millions around the world (the real one, our Earth) thrill to the mere mention of the name of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Characters at the Edge

Are your story’s characters living out at the edge? If not, maybe you should push them further out there.

What does that mean? In this post by author Steven Pressfield, he mentions a friend of his who considers fictional characters far more interesting, more worth reading about, if they operate at some extreme, if they’re desperate enough to act outside normal boundaries.

Image from pixabay.com

Only then is the drama enticing enough, the character fascinating enough, to make the tale worth the reader’s time.

Pressfield’s post cites examples including several movie characters played by Matthew McConaughey, as well as characters on cable TV shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.

Two thoughts I’d add to Pressfield’s post. First, he claims it should be as if a character is telling the reader, “Don’t take your eyes off me because I am capable of doing anything.” By “anything” I believe Pressfield means anything consistent with the character’s personality and motivations. The character should be at the edge, yes, but at the edge of a space bordered by that character’s nature and inner dreams.

Second, as one of the commenters pointed out, being at the edge doesn’t only mean rough-and-tumble actions such as picking fights, killing people, or driving 100 miles per hour.

For example, say you’re Arthur Conan Doyle and you want to write about a fictional detective. Taking that character to the edge means making him capable of deductive reasoning and powers of observations that are at the outer limits of human capability. Then, of course, compensate by giving that character weaknesses and flaws; you don’t get superhuman abilities in one facet without suffering in some others.

Say you’re Jules Verne and you want to write about a character desperate to complete a journey around the world before a deadline. Taking that character to the edge means making him fixated on time, exacting and precise, decisive and unemotional. Compensate by giving him faults as well, such as being uncaring and oblivious to the emotions of others.

Before writing your story, create a written description of your main characters, including each one’s physical appearance, motivation, personality type, goals, and dreams, etc. Then ask yourself if you can make those characters more extreme. Don’t worry about realism or authenticity too much. See how close to the edge you can push them.

If you succeed in doing this, your story’s action and dialogue will be fascinating and dramatic, your characters vivid and unforgettable.

Go ahead and push them out toward the edge…further…further… Out on that precipice stands your finest character, a big part of your best story. Now write that story.

One more thing. When your story succeeds, tell me about it by leaving an edgy comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Best-Seller Foreteller?

What if a soothsayer could tell you if your manuscript would become a best-seller? If you were a publisher, you’d hire that soothsayer, right?

Throughout the history of the publishing industry, editors and publishers had to make buy-or-reject decisions based on experience and gut feel.

Welcome to the Age of Big Data.

Crystal ball image from Wikipedia

According to an article in The Telegraph , researchers at Stony Brook University used computers to analyze writing styles and could predict whether a book would be successful with up to 84% accuracy.

Following up on that, Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers wrote The Bestseller Code, a book about their algorithm (the “bestseller-o-meter”) that analyzes character, plot, setting, style, and theme to make its predictions. According to an article in BBC Culture, this strangely named algorithm is also highly accurate.

More recently, I read an article in BuiltinAustin about a company in Austin, Texas called AUTHORS.me that has developed their own algorithm, StoryFit, which they market to publishers.

These algorithms chew on massive amounts of data—thousands of novels—and perform statistical analyses. After being given test data about past novels for which the success or failure results are known, the algorithm “learns,” or at least develops rules, to distinguish best-sellers from flops. You then apply the algorithm to an unpublished manuscript and make a reasonable prediction. A crystal ball for novels.

Could this lead to a world where publishers reject your manuscript because their algorithm said it wouldn’t sell? Or a world where authors could edit their manuscript to add in the aspects such algorithms judge to be indicative of success? Could the writing and publishing of novels be reduced to a numbers game?

Not quite yet, apparently. The Stony Brook University algorithm struggled to predict the success of books in one genre—historical fiction. Also their algorithm “predicted” Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea would flop. Archer and Jockers’ bestseller-o-meter rated The Help by Kathryn Stockett as meh. Further, the novel achieving their algorithm’s highest score (The Circle by Dave Eggers) was a commercial failure.

Certainly, these artificially intelligent systems will improve and get more accurate in the coming years. They’ll identify trends in how the reading public’s tastes are changing. Maybe the algorithms will never be 100% right, and some books they reject will succeed and vice versa. Every now and then, an author tries something new and it sells well despite being unlike the norm. They do call them novels, after all.

As publishers make increasing use of tools that predict a novel’s success, and as authors begin to use similar tools to tune their manuscripts for market success, could it be that overall novel writing will improve? Will that lead to an increase in readership, a renewed clamor for books by the buying public?

I hope so. In the meantime, my new big-data algorithm has just finished analyzing all my previous blog posts, and states there is a 99% probability I’ll conclude this one by signing it—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Instability

What’s that trumpet fanfare I’m hearing? Oh, that’s right. My story “Instability” will appear in the anthology Dark Luminous Wings. It’s another Pole to Pole Publishing anthology, edited by the incomparable Kelly A. Harmon and Vonnie Winslow Crist.

Kelly and Vonnie wanted stories involving wings, so I did some research and brainstorming. As usual, I generated plenty of ideas and had to down-select to one that would result in a compelling story of the right length.

From Wikipedia.org

In my research I’d come across the account of Brother Eilmer of Malmesbury Abbey. A Benedictine monk who lived around 1000 AD, Eilmer is supposed to have flown from the abbey’s tower using a set of wings he made. These were Daedalus-and-Icarus style wings that he flapped with his arms. He didn’t really “fly,” but more likely glided in an uncontrolled manner. The account says he crash-landed, broke both legs, and was lame the rest of his life.

Medieval monks weren’t generally known for their technological creativity and spirit of adventure. Imagine Brother Eilmer engaged in a life of worship, hard work, singing, praying, and copying. He reads the Greek account of Daedalus and Icarus, and decides he could construct wings and fly as they did. Imagine him standing atop the tower, trying to overcome his fear so he can leap off. Think how he must have felt at first, actually flying, before losing control.

In my fictionalized account, throw in a fellow monk of the lying, scheming and snitching variety as well as an Abbott who can’t decide if Eilmer is insane or possessed, and you’ve got my story, “Instability.”

When Dark Luminous Wings comes out in print, I’ll tell you how to get your copy so you can read my story, along with all the others. I found Eilmer such a fascinating character, I may write more tales about him. Maybe he’ll get his own series. A book of stories about a medieval scribe, scribbled by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

An Analysis of Effortless Story Writing

“That story wrote itself,” I’ve sometimes said. But I exaggerated; it didn’t really happen that way. Still, it got me thinking. What if a story could write itself?

I decided to find out. Being rather sciency, I reckoned I’d conduct a careful and thorough experiment. I would give a story every conceivable chance, every possible opportunity, to write itself. Not because I’m lazy, you understand. This was for Science.

It’s time to shift the tone of this blog post to scientificalic language, lest you start to suspect I’m some kind of…not scientist.

Laboratory Setup – laptop still not writing

Ahem…the laptop was positioned in a roo—I mean—laboratory accustomed to having stories written in it, at a temperature of 24° C at normal atmospheric pressure. The laptop was turned on, plugged into a 120-volt alternating current power source, and word processing software was accessed.

The experimenter then left the laboratory and engaged in other, non-writing activities. These included cleaning other rooms, mowing the lawn, reading books, making and consuming lunch, and driving around town on various errands.

After a period of 8 hours and 24 minutes, the experimenter quietly re-entered the laboratory and discovered that a story had not been written. Even a part of a story had not been written, not a paragraph, sentence, word, letter, or punctuation mark. Neither had any new computer files been stored.

To gather more data, further opportunities were presented to the laptop on subsequent days. Longer time periods were tried, durations up to 73 hours and 53 minutes, with the same result. The experimenter engaged in a wider variety of non-writing activities, at greater distances from the laptop. Some trials were conducted with the laboratory door open, and some with it shut. Actual writing occurred in 0% of these cases.

Similar experiments were conducted with ink-filled pens and reams of blank paper. This served to eliminate the laptop and its software as the causal factor. Despite every opportunity and considerable time provided, the pens created no marks on the paper.

The experimenter tried to “spur” or “seed” the process by writing a first sentence, and allowing both laptop and pen to merely complete the story. These attempts likewise resulted in failure.

Numerous graphs were developed to document the results of these trials. They are not included here because the independent variable refused to depart from the axis; that is, the results were 0 in every case. 0 writing produced no matter what other quantity was being tested.

One common factor in all these trials was the experimenter himself. He therefore consulted several other writers and 100% of them reported the same outcomes in their “experiments,” though their trials were far less scientifical, with no white laboratory coats anywhere in evidence, and they had utterly failed to note the temperature. Mention of them here is included as anecdotal evidence only.

The experimenter is therefore forced to a surprising, though tentative, conclusion—it may be possible that stories do not, in fact, write themselves. The creation of stories appears to require the active participation of a writer. Significant participation actually, in every written story so far. At least this seems true for stories involving this single experimenter.

Further research is clearly indicated to validate or (hopefully) disprove this conclusion. Perhaps some necessary initial condition was overlooked, some nuance of temperature, pressure, time duration, or distance. Maybe positive results might occur under certain lunar phases or planetary alignments. A breakthrough may well await some future experimenter in this exciting research field.

For the advancement of Scientificness, this experimenter encourages others to conduct similar trials, particularly those authors writing in the same competitive genres as this experimenter. Feel free to send your own scientilic trial results as comments to this blog post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Giftwrapping an Idea

Most gifts are tangible things, items that occupy space and have weight. But writers tread the realm of visions and dreams, thoughts and imaginings. You can’t give those things as gifts, can you? Well…

Author Andrew Gudgel and I were exchanging gifts at holiday time a few years ago. He’d been talking (for well over a year) about a story idea he had. I thought it was wonderful and kept urging him to write the story. Instead, as a gift to me, he said, “You write it.”

There were some tangible things he also gave me, the notes he’d compiled while preparing to write the story. But the real gift was the idea, and he’d given it to me.

I know, I’ve blogged before that ideas are the easy part, the trivial part, the dime-a-dozen part, and I’ve said the hard part is actually scribbling down the story and polishing it until you can sell it.

Let me caveat that now. Some ideas are more valuable than others are. Some are gold. Some are more valuable to a writer other than the one who thought of them. Such was the case with Andrew’s idea; he sensed I loved it more than he did, and that I would not hesitate to run with it. For him, it was in the ‘I’ll get to it someday’ bin.

From Andrew’s idea came my story “After the Martians.” In partial payment to him, I named a character in the story after him. If you add the value of that to the value of whatever silly gift I gave him that year, you’d still fall far short of what he gave me. I was out-gifted, plain and simple.

As Andrew so eloquently put it in his blog: “’Ideas rot if you don’t do something with them,’ said the writer Edd Dumbill. I agree. By keeping a creative idea locked away in your head/on your hard-drive/in your notebooks, it’s not free to enrich the world. Think about it this way: you may be fated to conceive of the idea and to give birth to it, but not to be the one who raises it to maturity. That may be someone else’s task. So, if after a period of sober reflection, you come to the conclusion that you’re not going to make use of an idea, give it away—throw it to a creative friend, put it on your blog, launch it out into the public sphere—and give someone else the opportunity to enrich the world with it.”

For completeness, I should mention another, earlier example of giving an idea as a gift, though this still causes me anguish and shame.

Many years and several critique groups ago, I was in a group with Raymond (not his real name). Each month, Raymond contributed a new chapter of the novel he was writing. One day, we found out Raymond had died. I don’t recall the circumstances, whether illness or accident, but he was far too young.

I got a letter from his widow saying that in his final days, Raymond had told her he wanted me to finish his novel, and she was asking if I’d do that.

Wow. Tough dilemma. On one hand, I couldn’t refuse a request from the widow of a friend and fellow writer, could I? She wasn’t asking for that much—just complete the story he’d almost finished and send it out for publication. She wasn’t asking for a portion of the payments, if the novel made money.

On the other hand, I didn’t have the passion for the story that Raymond did. I didn’t think I could do it justice. The novel involved a plot and genre type that had already saturated the market. It didn’t seem to me that readers were begging for another such novel.

In the end, I turned down the offer, with regrets. Perhaps I should have taken it, but I didn’t. Raymond’s idea deserved a champion who cared about it as deeply as he had. I was not that writer.

As you can see, it is possible to get wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows around something as insubstantial as an idea, a whim. If you’re struggling to do it, and can’t quite figure out how to cut and enclose, fold and tape the darn thing, if you need an expert guide, call—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Near Misses in Technology

For six years I’ve used this blog to aid beginning writers, but starting today I’ll occasionally take on other topics. Technology is fascinating to me, and today’s topic is those near misses in history when someone developed a technology before the world was ready.

What do I mean by ‘near misses?’ I’m talking about when an inventor came up with a new idea but it didn’t catch on, either because no one saw the possible applications or because there was no current need.

When you compare the date of the invention to the much later date when the idea finally took off, it’s intriguing to imagine how history might have been different, and how much further ahead we’d be today.

You’ll get a better idea of what I mean as we go through several examples.

Computers

The Antikythera Mechanism was likely the first computer, used for calculating the positions of celestial bodies. Invented in Greece in the 2nd Century BC, it contained over 30 intricate gears, and may have been a one-off. It is interesting to speculate how history might have been different if they’d envisioned other uses for this technology, such as mathematical calculations. Imagine Charles Babbage’s geared computer being invented two millennia earlier!

I was fascinated by the Antikythera Mechanism and the mystery surrounding its discovery in a shipwreck, so I wrote my story, “Wheels of Heaven,” with my version of those events.

Lasers

It’s puzzling to me that inventors came up with radios (1896) before lasers (1960). After all, radio involves invisible electromagnetic waves, but lasers are visible light. Sure, the mathematics behind lasers (stimulated emissions) wasn’t around until Einstein, but with people monkeying around with mirrors and prisms, it’s strange that no one happened upon the laser phenomenon ahead of its mathematical underpinning.

Charles Fabry and Alfred Perot came close in1899 when they developed their Fabry-Perot etalon, or interferometer. Again, imagine how history might have been different if lasers had appeared sixty years earlier, before radio.

My story “Within Victorian Mists” is a steampunk romance featuring the development of lasers and holograms in the 19th Century.

Manned Rocketry

The first manned rocket flight may have been that of German test pilot Lothar Sieber on March 1, 1945. It was unsuccessful and resulted in Sieber’s death. The first successful manned flight was that of Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961.

But did Sieber and Gagarin have a predecessor, beating them by three centuries?

There is an account of a manned rocked flight in 1633, the trip made successfully in Istanbul by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi. It’s fun to imagine if the sultan of that time had recognized the possibilities. My story “To Be First” is an alternate history tale showing where the Ottoman Empire might have gotten to by the year 1933 if they’d capitalized on Çelebi’s achievement.

Submarines

The earliest attempts at underwater travel come to us in legends and myths. Highly dubious accounts tell of Alexander the Great making a descent in a diving bell apparatus in 332 BC. There are vague references to the invention of a submarine in China around 200 BC. True submarine development really got its start in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s.

Still, think about how much more we’d know today about the oceans if the ancient accounts were true and people of the time had make the most of them. My story “Alexander’s Odyssey” is a re-telling of the Alexander the Great episode, and “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai” is my version of the ancient Chinese submarine.

Steam Engines

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen developed the first commercially successful steam engine. Later, James Watt and Richard Trevithick improved on Newcomen’s design.

However, these inventions were preceded by Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria in the 1st Century AD. He developed a small steam engine called an aeolipile, though he considered it an amusing toy.

What if Heron had visualized the practical possibilities of this engine? Since the steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution, could humanity have skipped ahead 1700 years technologically? My story, “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” imagines a practical use for Heron’s engine along with a reason it didn’t catch on.

Other Near Misses?

You get the idea. I am intrigued by the number of times inventors hit on an idea, but society failed to recognize it and take advantage of it, so it had to wait until much later. Are there other examples you can think of? Leave a comment for me. Your thoughts might well be featured in a post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

What’s the Price for That Nice Plot Device?

You’ve heard of plot devices, but do you know what they are? Are they good or bad? Can you name any? For answers to these questions, you’ve come to the right blog post.

No, wrong kind of ‘device.’
From www.snappygoat.com.

Before we can define the term ‘plot device,’ let’s review what a plot is, and how a writer develops one. A plot is a sequence of events in a story, events connected by cause and effect. The writer aims to construct this sequence such that it accomplishes at least the following goals:

  1. illustrates the human condition,
  2. introduces a conflict and depicts the protagonist striving to resolve it,
  3. grabs and sustains the reader’s attention,
  4. leaves the reader with a powerful emotion at the end, and
  5. reflects believable cause-and-effect connections.

If you’re a writer crafting your story, it can be difficult to achieve all these purposes successfully. Often a complication develops. Unlike the reader, you know the story’s end and you’re aiming for that point. You might hit a snag where the next logical event in a cause-effect chain will not result in your desired story ending. To put it another way, to get to the end you want, something illogical has to happen. Your options at this point include:

  • re-writing earlier sections to make the strange cause-effect chain believable
  • re-thinking the ending of the story
  • introducing a plot device to get past the difficulty

Often the first two options are undesirable, so that drives writers to the third—the plot device.

The ‘device’ in the term ‘plot device’ refers to its original definition of a plan, scheme, or technique, not its modern connotation of a mechanical or electronic gadget.

Here are some examples of plot devices:

  • Bogus alternatives. This one comes from the Turkey City Lexicon. Sometimes, to make the plot work, the author needs a character to take an uncharacteristic action. An inexperienced author will walk the reader through the character’s mental list of options, rationalizing why the character chooses one action and not the others. This interrupts the story’s pace, pulls the reader out of the story, and is unnecessary.
  • Deus ex machina. A surprise entity comes out of nowhere to save the protagonist from a plot problem. Let’s see, Jules Verne thinks, I’ve got the title, The Mysterious Island, and I’ve got my heroic castaways who survive mostly by their wits, except sometimes they need outside help. I know! I’ll let them be aided by an unknown benefactor, later revealed to be Captain Nemo!”
  • Idiot plot. This is another one from the Turkey City Lexicon. If the writers plot problem is serious, one solution would be to set the story in the land of idiots, which would explain any unusual action taken by any character. They can all act to further the author’s plot, no matter how irrational any character’s actions seem.
  • MacGuffin. The protagonist pursues an object, believing it to be important, though (to the reader) another object could work as well. “Listen, Dashiell, I like novel, but can we change this Sicilian Vulture statuette to something else…say, a Maltese Falcon?” “Okay, sure.”
  • Plot voucher. Someone gives the protagonist an object that turns out to be the one thing needed later to get the hero out of a bad situation. “Holy plot device, Batman, why are you loading bear repellent in your utility belt?” “Better safe than sorry, Robin.” <later> “Holy Ursa Major, Batman! We’re surrounded by hungry grizzlies!” “Yes, lucky thing I happened to bring…”
  • Red herring. Anything used by the author to distract the reader’s attention away toward the unimportant and away from the important. Most frequently used in mysteries to lead the reader toward an incorrect conclusion. The term dates from the use of strong-smelling fish to divert hounds from chasing the hare. I haven’t read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but I understand it contains a character with an Italian name that translates as “red herring.”
  • Shoulder angel. A plot device used in visual media such as comic books, animated cartoons, or screenplays to illustrate a protagonist debating with her conscience, sometimes accompanied by a devil (temptation) on the other shoulder.

 From the tone of my post, you’re probably concluding that plot devices are bad, and it’s best not to use them. I’m not going to take that stance. Most writers try not to need them, but end up using them from time to time. The trick is to write well enough that readers get so swept up by your story that they don’t notice you’ve used a plot device.

To sum up, what is the price of that nice plot device, as I so poetically asked in the post’s title? The answer is, it’s free to use, but if you don’t use it well, readers won’t enjoy your story. Take it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Do Yer Worst, Ye Scurvy, Book-Piratin’ Dogs!

You’re an inexperienced writer; you finally get a book accepted and published. Now some pirate website is giving your book away free, and paying you nothing. What do you do about it?

A modern book pirate’s treasure chest

Before I answer that, what exactly is a book pirate, and how do their sites work? A book pirate takes your ebook (or scans your print book and converts it to .pdf) and gives it away to anyone who wants to download it. They don’t pay you or your publisher. This is illegal.

Giving away the product doesn’t sound like a successful business plan, does it? They do sell advertising on those sites; that’s how they make their money. Some may not care about earning money at all; they may believe information should be free in this Age of the Internet.

When my first story was published, I set up a search engine alert to inform me when that story title was mentioned anywhere on the web, and I’ve done this for every subsequent published story. Much to my surprise, about half of these mentions turned out to be on pirate websites.

The first time, I got angry and wondered what I could do about it. There are steps you can take, but emailing notifications followed by legal warnings can get time-consuming, and may not cause the pirate to quit giving away your book.

The funniest case was when the anthology Avast, Ye Airships!, in which my story “A Clouded Affair” appeared, was pirated. Yes, a book about pirates fell victim to piracy. I wonder if the web pirates even noticed the irony themselves.

Again, how do you respond to this villainy? I know the pirates deserve to be keelhauled, whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails, and forced to walk the plank. But how do you find the low-life, hook-handed, parrot-toting rapscallions? And where do you get a fully equipped sailing ship?

In the real world, your response depends on your level of anger about piracy, your available time to send repeated e-mail warnings, your level of tolerance for frustration, and your willingness to take on a cause that (while moral and right) has only a tiny chance of succeeding.

If you’re a first-time author, the pirates may be doing you a favor. Hard to believe, I know, but follow my reasoning. At this early point in your writing adventure, exposure is more important to you than earnings. That pirate represents one more website mentioning you and your book, one more website popping up in internet searches of topics related to your book, one more website’s worth of evidence you’re an established author.

You’re still not buying that, I can tell. How about this; try the Genie Test. (I know, genies and pirates—mixing genres. Just go with it.) Author Robert Kroese introduced the Genie Test in a guest-post on Joanna Penn’s website. Suppose you rub a magic lamp and a Genie materializes. (I’m visualizing Barbara Eden.) She offers to download your ebook on one million e-readers, but you won’t earn a cent. She’s ready to cross her arms and nod, making the magic happen. Do you stop her, or let her do it?

Think of it—a million Kindles, Nooks, etc., all containing your book. If a small fraction of those people read your book, and a small fraction of them enjoy it enough to read more, that’s still a sizable following, a readership. Isn’t that what you really wanted? Thanks, Jeannie!

I’m not defending book piracy. It’s theft. It’s illegal. It ought to end. (Hey, Jeannie, are you still there? Why not magically end all book piracy while you’re at it?) I’m just suggesting, on your prioritized list of things to fret about, book piracy ought to move down a few places, maybe just above your fears about planet-ending meteor strikes, sharknadoes, and the zombie apocalypse.

That’s why I say, do yer darndest, ye snivellin’ pack o’ book-stealin,’ grog-swillin’ pirates. Ye ain’t gonna stir one hair on the head o’—

Poseidon’s Scribe