Getting Through the 3 Filters

Let’s say you have a thought in your brain, a thought you want me to have in my brain also. Since you and I lack mental telepathy, we must settle for some other communication method. For our purposes today, we’ll say you’ve chosen written communication.

You convert that thought of yours into words of a standard language, a language you can write and I can read. You put those words into tangible form, either electronic or printed. Someone conveys your written document to me by some means. I read it, converting the words I read into a thought.

Will the thought in my brain match the one in yours exactly? Probably not. Considering the signal loss in the filters through which the thought passes on its way, it’s amazing two people can communicate at all.

The process is usually not as bad as the way I’ve dramatized it in the accompanying image. Still, it’s a less efficient transmission method than mental telepathy would likely be.

The part I’ve depicted as the “writing filter” consists of many things standing between pure thought and actual words. These include the clarity of your idea, your understanding of the meaning and connotation of words, your mood, your skill with language, your vocabulary, etc.

I’ve named the filter in the middle the “copying filter” and it represents any errors that creep into the text between the time you write it and the time I read it. For e-books, there could be a transmission error and some text becomes scrambled. For paper books, there could be smudges, spills, or torn pages that make some of the text difficult to read. Luckily, this filter usually results in negligible signal loss.

The “reading filter” is akin to the writing filter, but it’s everything between the words I read and the thoughts they cause in my brain. These include my understanding of words, my mood, my vocabulary, my ability to interpret meanings on several levels, my attention span, my life experiences, etc.

Remember, your goal was to create a thought in my brain matching the thought in yours. What can you do to increase the likelihood of the thoughts being identical? You can’t do anything about my reading filter; that’s solely up to me. You usually can’t do much about the copying filter, and it’s not much of a filter anyway.

Your focus needs to be on the writing filter within you, the only part of the process under your control. Work toward clear ideas, firm understanding of word meanings, mastery of language, increased vocabulary, and keeping your passing emotions from distorting your writing.

The best authors have nearly transparent writing filters resulting in negligible signal loss. That’s your goal.

I touched on this topic in a previous post, and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne explored these transmission filters in the context of getting bad reviews, in a guest post on Joanna Penn’s website, well worth the read.

Good luck, Writer! Improve the transparency of your writing filter so you can convey thoughts crisply to the world, and especially to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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.

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., 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

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 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