Analysis of Writer and Non-Writer Morphs

A significant proportion of the Homo sapiens species does not write fiction, leaving that task to a tiny sector of the population that writes all of it. Today we examine this phenomenon and these particular creatures, and draw what conclusions we can from the available data.

Observations indicate the vast majority (greater than 99 percent) of adults within this species do not write fiction. The fiction-writing and non-fiction-writing fractions have not split off as separate species, and seem unlikely to do so. The distinction between the two is behavioral only, so we may define the fiction-writers as the FW Morph, and the others as the NFW Morph. Other sub-species terms such as breed, race, cultivar, ecotype, and strain are not as applicable as morph.

Note: We are only comparing those Homo sapiens who write fiction and those who do not. The term NFW should not be confused with those who write nonfiction books.

FWs and NFWs coexist and both share a similar global distribution pattern. Evidence shows the two morphs consume similar food, display no distinctive appearance differences, and often cohabit and interbreed without apparent preference for their own, or the other, morph. Resulting offspring mature into FW or NFW in the same 1% and 99% proportions, respectively. No statistical correlation is observed regarding passing on the FW trait to offspring. For example, two NFW parents may produce a child who matures into a FW.

In general, the species puts significant value on the education of its young. Nearly all juvenile Homo sapiens are trained in fiction writing, and are encouraged to create their own stories between the ages of 8 and 18 years. Thus, nearly all have the capability to become FW as mature adults, yet few do.

Behavioral differences between the two morphs are significant, and some of these differences are documented below.

  1. Obviously, FWs spend considerable time writing fiction, and NFWs spend no time doing so.
  2. FWs are more likely to read books (both fiction and nonfiction), and to read more often, than NFW.
  3. FWs react in varied and bizarre ways to the acceptance of a submitted story by an editor, and to the arrival of a box of the FW’s own books. These apparent rituals (dancing, fist-pumping, inordinate consumption of alcohol or chocolate have been observed) are thought to be celebratory in nature, but further studies are indicated.
  4. FWs make frequent attempts to discuss their stories with NFWs, rarely with a favorable outcome. NFWs often appear bored, or make some attempt not to look bored. The FW either fails to notice or expresses bewilderment. In extreme cases, an argument ensues and the two separate, usually for a temporary period.
  5. FWs occasionally seek out the company of other FWs. Perhaps this is because they are so rare, or perhaps they understand each other better than they understand NFWs.
  6. NFWs apparently are capable of creative thought and retain vestigial memories of early fiction-writing education. Sometimes an NFW will suggest to an FW that the FW write a story around the idea the NFW just had. FWs almost never do this, and instead suggest the NFW write the story. The NFW will almost never do that.

Since FWs produce a unique product that NFWs consume, and since NFWs produce all other products needed by FWs, an economic exchange relationship has developed. The amount of wealth earned by a given FW apparently depends on the popularity and demand for that FW’s stories among the NFWs.

In an economic sense, it is fortunate that FWs are in the minority; otherwise they would have to pay NFWs to read their books, rather than the other way around.

To the author’s knowledge, this is the first significant study of these fascinating morphs and their interactions in the wild. Clearly, the need for more comparative studies is indicated. Confirmation or refutation of the observations made in this analysis is sought by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

What Is It With Authors and Their Pets?

Many authors have pets. I thought I’d speculate why that’s so.

File:Cat August 2010-4.jpg by Alvesgaspar
by Alvesgaspar
dog
by Habj

 

 

 

 

 

I did a little online research and came up with the following table of authors, their pet type and breed, and the pet name or names, if known. For the data in the table, I’m grateful to the bloggers here, here, and here.

Author Pet Type-Breed Pet Name(s)
Michel de Montaigne Cat
Samuel Johnson Cat Hodge
Elizabeth Barrett Browning Dog – Cocker Spaniel Flush
Edgar Allan Poe Cat Catterina
Charles Dickens Bird – Raven

Raven
By Quinn Dombrowski
Grip
Jules Verne Dog Follet
Mark Twain Cat Bambino
Edith Wharton Dogs Mouton, Sprite, Mitou, Miza, Nicette, Mimi
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette Cat
Gertrude Stein Dog – Poodle Basket
Hermann Hesse Cat
Virginia Woolf Dog Pinka
William Carlos Williams Cats
Raymond Chandler Cat Taki
T. S. Eliot Cat
Edith Södergran Cats Totti (favorite)
Dorothy Parker Dog Misty
Aldous Huxley Cat
William Faulkner Dogs
Jean Cocteau Cat
E.B. White Dog – Dachshund Minnie
Ernest Hemingway Cats (23) Snowball, Uncle Willie
Jorge Luis Borges Cat
John Steinbeck Dog – Poodle Charley
Jean Paul Sartre Cat
Wystan Hugh Auden Cat Rudimace
Tennessee Williams Cat Sabbath
William S. Burroughs Cats Fletch, Spooner, Ginger, Calico Jane, Rooski, Wimpy, Ed
Tove Jansson Cat
Julio Cortázar Cat Theodor W. Adorno
Doris May Lessing Cats El Magnifico
Charles Bukowski Cat
Ray Bradbury Cat
Patricia Highsmith Cats and snails

Grapevinesnail_01
By Jürgen Schoner
Jack Kerouac Cat Tyke
Kurt Vonnegut Dog Pumpkin
Truman Capote Cat
Edward Gorey Cats
Mary Flannery O’Connor Peacocks (~40)

Peacock_Plumage
By Jatin Sindhu
Manley Pointer, Joy/Hulga, Mary Grace
George Plimpton Cat Mr. Puss
Peter Matthiessen Cat
Maurice Sendak Dog Herman
Philip K. Dick Cat Magnificat
Jacques Derrida Cat
E.L. Doctorow Dog Becky
Joyce Carol Oates Cat
Stephen King Cats and Dogs Clovis (one of the cats)
Neil Gaiman Cats Coconut, Hermione, Pod, Zoe, Princess

Obviously, the most common pets on the list are cats and dogs. However it’s notable that Charles Dickens had a raven; Patricia Highsmith kept snails; and Mary Flannery O’Connor make peacocks her pets.

Before conducting my research, I assumed authors would have clever or literary names for their pets. After all, they know how to choose words carefully. That’s why, in my table, I included pet names where known. However, for the most part, authors name their pets the same things most people do. Maurice Sendak named his dog for Herman Melville, but that’s the exception.

There are websites now for today’s authors to post entries about themselves and their pets—notably here, here, and here.

Why do authors keep pets? Likely for the same reason other people keep pets—companionship. Pets can serve other functions, of course. Dogs can protect a home or assist the blind. Cats can rid a home of mice.

Still, I think certain aspects of pet companionship appeal to authors in particular.

  • Writers spend considerable time away from others, and prefer silence or soft instrumental music while writing. Human voices (even singing) can be a distraction. Pets will lie or sit quietly for long periods.
  • A pet will provide a relaxing break from writing. Often the pet determines these intervals. But it’s thought animals may sense human emotions, and sometimes the pet might detect that the writer needs a break.
  • A writer can use a pet as an unbiased and uncritical sounding board. A pet will listen patiently while being read to, and provide no feedback. The writer has the benefit of an audience, with no need to feel self-conscious about the poor quality of a first draft.
  • A pet can serve as inspiration for a writer who is writing a story about a similar animal. The writer can observe a pet’s movements, habits, and general personality, and incorporate these in the story.

There must be other reasons as well, and I urge you to comment and offer some.

As for me, I do not have a pet. Some years ago, I kept several fish in a nice aquarium, but I gave that up. I’m allergic to animal hair, but some dogs and cats are hairless, so that’s not a real barrier. Who knows, someday a pet might offer its own special companionship to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

In the Mood, Revisited

Some time ago, I posted about how to get yourself in the mood to write. Today I’ll come at it from a different slant and suggest you should write even when you’re not in the right mood.

We’ve all been there. There’s a task (say, writing) you should do, and it’s now the allotted time for it. However, you’re not in the mood. Something else has happened to put your mind in the wrong frame.

Typically, it’s some strong, negative emotion like anger or sadness. Someone or something has upset you and left you too distraught to do any writing. You can’t bear the thought of writing, can’t imagine sitting down at a keyboard, not at a time like this.

Writing in the MoodYour mind is filled with raw feelings, and you have no room for anything else. You can’t be creative, not now. You can’t get in the mind of a character right now, can’t be bothered with rules of English, or with choosing the right words. Besides, your novel is a comedy, and you’re feeling the opposite of funny.

I suggest that this is a fine time to sit down and write. Why?

  1. It’s important to preserve the discipline, the habit, of writing. As we know, bad habits are easy to form, and good habits are easy to drop. If you skip a day of writing based on your bad mood today, it’s that much easier to make an excuse for not writing tomorrow.
  1. You might just write better. That raw emotion you’re feeling will find its way into your prose, and might well give it power, lifting its quality above your previous best.
  1. Writing might give you fresh perspective on the cause of your mood. Writing may calm you down. Perhaps the massive problems your characters face will make yours seem less by comparison. As you push your heroic, fictional character to save the world while subduing monstrous evil, the hero you create might just create a hero inside you, a real person who can resolve the problem of the day.

Of course, there will be days when life legitimately prevents you from writing. Sometimes that event that soured your mood requires you to take action. You have to act, to deal with the problem. Writing is important, you know, but it’s a lower priority today.

I get that. But note a key difference. If you must act, do so. If you have nothing to do but sit and stew, then write instead. In other words, legitimate high-priority tasks can be an excuse for not writing, but a bad mood shouldn’t be.

Thanks to Jocelyn K. Glei, since her post with her interview of Seth Grogan about his contribution to the book Manage Your Day-to-Day inspired my own post.

How about that? I’ve just increased your writing time. Now you can write even when you’re in a rotten mood, as does—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Note: there’s a week left in the amazing Smashwords 1/2 price sale, where you can get 14 of my books for half price. Remember, they’re listed there at the full price, but when you click on any one of them, Smashwords gives you a code to use at checkout to get the discount.

Dividing Your Time

A long time ago, in a writing and publishing galaxy far, far away, authors could write all the time and the publisher would do all the marketing. Not any more. These days, authors must do their own marketing.

But who has time for that?

Dividing timeWell, you’d better make time for it. Somehow. Sure, you want to spend your precious time writing and you don’t like marketing. That’s why you became a writer. Still, it turns out that your preferences don’t really enter into this—you must do most of your own marketing (or pay someone to do it for you).

Let’s assume you’re done grumbling about that fact and have reached acceptance. You know you must spend some time marketing, and now it’s just a question of how much.

After all, marketing does consume time. Book marketing activities include blogging, blog tours, author interviews, arranging for reviews, book signings, podcasts, social media, and making promotional videos.

How are you going to balance all that with your writing? Let’s take two extreme examples, those of authors Ty Prighter and Mark Etter.

  • Ty Prighter wrote all the time. He disdained marketing and refused to devote any time to it. After all, he said, that’s the publisher’s business. Ty believed the more he wrote the better author he’d become; if he became skilled enough, readers would find his books and want more. His books would market themselves.
  • Mark Etter wrote one book. He got so busy marketing it, he had no time to write another. He enjoyed the social interaction of marketing. Mark discovered which marketing methods worked best for him, and ceased the ineffective ones and focused on those that increased sales.

Which of these authors was more successful? Actually, neither writer practiced a good time management strategy.

It was a long time before readers noticed Ty’s books. He did improve his writing, thanks to the time he spent doing it, but improvement was slow due to the lack of reader feedback. He missed out on a lot of sales he could have had if he’d reached out to readers early.

As for Mark, his book did sell, but some of his readers wanted more. He had no more. Popularity of his one book didn’t rise as high as it might have, had there been a sequel, or at least other books written by that author.

Ty and Mark are fictitious examples, of course. For you, in the real world, it’s going to take a balance. More than that, you’ll have to experiment to find the optimal split of time for you between writing and marketing. You may have to force yourself to do the marketing activities, or you may learn to enjoy them.

I wish I could offer you a numerical percentage of time that has worked for me. However, I’m much closer to the Ty Prighter end of the scale. I don’t spend much time marketing, other than blogging. I do enjoy that, but the effect of blogging on sales of my books has been lackluster. I’m working toward a better balance of marketing and writing time, but it’s difficult.

May the force be with you as you figure out your proper time balance. Once you do, consider sharing your wisdom, and leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 27, 2015Permalink

A Tight Plot

“Tight plotting” is the term I use where everything is necessary to the plot and the story moves along without tangents or superfluous references. I didn’t invent the term, but it’s not yet in widespread use.

First let’s examine the opposite—loose plotting—and we’ll be able to make the contrast. Loose plotting is more common in novels than in short stories, and somewhat common in movies. Why? In a novel there’s an expectation of length, and a tendency for the writer to get a related idea and decide to stick it in the manuscript, even if it has to be force-fit. The creation process for movies is more collaborative than that of books, and with many cooks there’s a tendency to lose focus and spoil the broth.

Airplane!To illustrate, consider two movies, both rather silly comedies. To me, the movie Airplane! (1980) is an example of loose plotting. It’s filled with funny little gags that bear little relation to the main plot and don’t advance the story. The movie may be funny, and it was a financial success, but it is not an example of tight plotting.

By contrast, the movie Galaxy Quest (1999) has a far tighter plot. There are humorous gags and lines, and some subplots, but nearly all the action and dialogue moves the plot along.

Galaxy_Quest_posterOne can argue which movie is funnier, and audiences might be more forgiving with comedies if the jokes are comical enough. But it seems to me that Galaxy Quest has the more focused, the more integral, of the two movies’ plots.

In written fiction such as short stories, novellas, or novels, I believe it’s important to keep the plot tight. Resist the temptation to “work in” what seems to be a great, though tangentially related, idea. Keep asking yourself if each scene, each character, each paragraph and sentence, advance your plot in some important way to keep the story moving. It’s okay to have subplots, but make them related to and supportive of your main plot, and don’t linger too long on any one subplot.

The editing process is where you’ll have the best chance to tighten your plot. You have to be brutal in cutting out unnecessary parts and words. As we say in the biz, you have to “kill your darlings.” Loose plotting is indicative of lazy editing.

Don’t think your readers can’t recognize loose plotting. Once they start your story and latch on to the main plot, they want to follow it to see what happens. They’ll detect any deviation from that plot. At first they’ll wonder how this new path is connected to the main plot. They may forgive an occasional tangent if it’s short. But with each digression you run the risk of boring the reader. A bored reader probably won’t finish your story, and definitely will not read your other stories.

For more information on tight plotting, and overall tight writing, see this great blog post by Margot Finke.

If there’s one writer who really strives to keep his plots tight, it’s—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 14, 2014Permalink

Secrets of the Past

Is it possible that some amazing things happened in historical times, but never made it in the history books? Today I’ll discuss the subgenre of fiction known as secret histories.

Wikipedia’s entry provides a good definition: “A secret history (or shadow history) is a revisionist interpretation of either fictional or real (or known) history which is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed, forgotten, or ignored by established scholars. Secret history is also used to describe a type or genre of fiction which portrays a substantially different motivation or backstory from established historical events.”

With secret histories the author can deviate from actual history as far as she’d like, but she must return things to status quo or else explain why historical accounts don’t align with her story.

For this reason, secret histories are not to be classified as alternate histories (as I mistakenly did here.  There is no permanent altering of history. Rather the world returns to the one we know. The thrill for the reader is seeing how close the world came to actually changing in some dramatic way.

Secret histories work well as thriller stories with assassins or spies, since they work in secret anyway. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle are two examples.

I’ve written secret histories myself, but my stories involve technology, not spies or assassins. In each one I leave it to the reader to speculate how much further ahead we’d be if some inventions had occurred earlier.

9781926704012In “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” an inventor creates a submarine in China in 200 B.C. There are obscure references asserting that something of that sort actually happened, and those references inspired my story. The tale ends in a way that explains why more submarines weren’t made as a result of this invention.

steamcover5My story “The Steam Elephant” (which appeared in Steampunk Tales magazine) is a secret history in which a traveling group of Britons and one Frenchman are enjoying a safari from the vantage of a steam-powered elephant invited by one of the Brits. They get caught up in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. This is intended as a sequel to the two books of Jules Verne’s Steam House series.

WindSphereShip4In “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” Heron of Alexandria takes his simple steam-powered toy and uses it to power a ship. If there had been a steamship in the 1st Century A.D., it boggles the mind to think we could have had the Industrial Revolution seventeen hundred years early and skipped the Dark Ages.

LeonardosLion3fAnother secret history is “Leonardo’s Lion” which answers what happened to the mechanical clockwork lion built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1515. In the story, humanity comes very close to seeing all of da Vinci’s designs made real, which would have advanced science and engineering by centuries.

TheSixHundredDollarMan3fI’d categorize “The Six Hundred Dollar Man” as secret history too, when a man fits steam-powered limbs on another man who’d been injured in a stampede. The story takes place in 1870 in Wyoming and it’s pretty clear by the story’s end why that technology didn’t catch on.

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry” is a tale about a young man who learns there have been secret high-technology regiments and brigades in wars going back at least to World War I. Members of these teams cannot reveal their group’s existence, so it fits the secret history genre.

ToBeFirstWheels5In “Wheels of Heaven” I take what is factually known about the Antikythera Mechanism, and weave a fictional tale to explain it.

As you can see, I like writing in this sub-genre. Imagine something interesting and imaginative happened in history, write about it, then tie up all the loose ends so that our modern historical accounts remain unchanged. Leave the reader wondering if the story could have really happened. History that might have been, courtesy of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 7, 2014Permalink

What a Disaster!

Today I’m exploring the world of disaster fiction. There are many, many stories dealing with disasters, from local misadventures to world-wide calamities. I’ll discuss frequently occurring themes in disaster fiction, as well as the reasons people read it. That might help you decide if you want to write such a tale.

DisasterFirst, no disaster story is truly about the disaster. If you want to write about disasters, try non-fiction. As I’ve said before, fiction is about the human condition, so your disaster story is really about the characters, their attempts to cope with the disaster, and how they grow or change as a result.

I’ll make a distinction between disaster stories and post-apocalyptic stories. In the latter, the disaster has already occurred and people are trying to handle the aftermath. In the former, the disaster occurs during the story. I’ll discuss post-apocalyptic fiction in a future blog post.

Types

Though disaster stories are about people, we can still classify them by the type of disaster that occurs, and there are plenty to choose from. You might think all the best disasters have been taken already and the reading public won’t go for one more disaster novel. You’d be wrong; since the stories are about people, there are always infinitely more stories to write.

Disasters can be natural, as with floods or tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, other significant storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme climate change, asteroid or comet collisions, etc.

The disaster could be an accident, such as a shipwreck, airplane crash, train wreck, industrial accident, etc. A car crash probably wouldn’t count, since the disaster really should involve a large number of people.

There are other disasters that aren’t natural, and aren’t really accidents either. Let’s call them calamities, and separate them into plausible and less-plausible scenarios. The plausible ones include pandemics, terrorist attacks, major wars, economic collapse, and loss of electricity.

The less-plausible calamities (my own risk assessment; yours might differ) include: alien invasion, uncontrolled release of technology (such as nanotechnology, robot uprising, creation of a black hole, creation of a super-disease or super-creature, etc.), zombie apocalypse, “return” of vampires or werewolves, and attacks by menacing (usually gigantic) animals.

Themes

You’ll find some common themes in disaster stories. Here’s a partial list.

• Despite how far humans have progressed, we need reminding we are small and weak creatures in a big, dangerous universe.
• As disaster looms, people will react differently, going through the Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ at different rates.
• A large-scale disaster will collapse the normal societal structure, and other structures will form.
• A disaster brings together strangers who must form a team with a common purpose, such as survival.
• A main character must overcome a personal fear or other psychological flaw and rise to the situation.
• A former leader cannot cope with the disaster; a new and unlikely leader must take charge.
• Often the protagonist’s main goal is either survival (of a group) or rescue of others.
• There are good and bad human reactions to disasters, and the characters who react badly often (though not always) meet a bad end. For example, preparation is better than assuming an unchanging future; clear thinking is better than panic, teamwork is better than uncaring self-centeredness; natural leadership is better than using a chaotic situation to claim power; focusing on the goal is more productive than blaming or finding fault.

Purpose

Why do people read disaster stories? These are among the reasons:

• It’s a chance to “experience” the disaster in a safe way, without having to endure it for real.
• The stories can be taken as metaphors for how we can deal with the smaller-scale mishaps of daily life.
• The tales can be metaphors for some perceived societal defect, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
• The stories offer lessons in preparation as old as the ant & grasshopper fable.

Conclusion

51aDCvEwjvLI would classify only one of my stories as a true disaster tale. “The Finality” appeared in the anthology 2012 AD by Severed Press. In it, a scientist discovers that time itself is coming to an end, not just on Earth but throughout the universe, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But just maybe the Mayans were trying to tell us something about that.

May all your disasters be the written kind; that’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 30, 2014Permalink

As Hobbies Go…

For me, writing fiction is a hobby. Maybe it’s the same for you. I figured I’d do a little comparison of writing to other hobbies you (and I) might have chosen instead.

hobby montageWikipedia defines a hobby as “an activity, interest, enthusiasm, or amateur pastime that is undertaken for pleasure or relaxation, typically done during one’s leisure time.” The entry categorizes hobbies as Collection, Competition, or Observation hobbies, with indoor and outdoor subsets of each. Writing, though it usually occurs indoors, doesn’t fit cleanly in any of the prime categories, since it’s not really about collection, competition, or observation (though it has elements of each).

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive study of the most popular hobbies, and the various website lists are all different. On the lists I’ve found, the following hobbies seem to keep cropping up as the most prevalent: Reading, Watching TV, Family time, Fishing, Going to movies, Gardening, Computer activities, Walking, Team Sports, Exercise, Renting movies, Listening to music, Golf, Traveling, and Entertaining.

I was intrigued to see Reading as #1 in a couple of lists; great news for writers! I also noticed how the most popular hobbies are low- or no-cost activities; no wonder they’re popular!

I found a list of hobbies that actually make money, and writing comes in at #3 on that list: Web design, Photography, Writing/Editing, Crafts, Coaching sports, Playing guitar, Organizing, Baking, Walking Dogs, and Shopping.

By definition, hobbies are for pleasure and relaxation, not necessarily for earning money, but it is an added bonus if your hobby pays you. And writing certainly can. For many writers, their dream is to shift their hobby to their livelihood, and that is possible.

How, then, does writing stack up against other hobbies? Some may consider these to be its disadvantages:
• It’s solitary
• It’s sedentary
• It requires some talent, or the willingness to develop talent
• It may take years before you’re published, or paid for your writing

Regarding those first two, you could always supplement with another hobby to make up for them.

On the positive side, writing has the following advantages:
• As discussed already, you can earn money
• It’s relaxing
• It’s a wonderful outlet for creative impulses; you create people and worlds
• There are few joys that can compare with getting a story accepted, and then seeing your name in print

As hobbies go, writing may not be for everyone, but you might end up loving it as much as—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 23, 2014Permalink

Time for a Story to Launch

I just learned my next story, “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” is scheduled to be launched by Gypsy Shadow Publishing in just three days, on November 15th. It’s the 12th book in that What Man Hath Wrought series everyone’s talking about.

Here’s the blurb: It’s 1600 in an alternate Switzerland, a world where Da Vinci’s mechanical automatons and human-powered flight almost work, thanks to magic trees. Long-separated twins, Georg the reluctant groom and Georg the clock thief, roam the clocklike village of Spätbourg, beset by more time and date errors than you can shake an hour hand at. Will Georg get married after all, and repair the town’s central tower clock? Will Georg—the other one—purloin more timepieces, or give up his pilfering ways? Will William Shakespeare lend a hand, and some iambic pentameter poetry, to reset the cogs and gears of this zany comedy? Only time will tell…or maybe not, in this ultimate clockpunk tale of mistaken identity and temporal mix-ups.

I’ll be sure to let you know when “Time’s Deformèd Hand” is launched and where you can buy it. You know if there’s one person who’d never leave you uninformed, it’s—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 13, 2014Permalink

That’s Classic!

Today’s lesson is: how to write a book that becomes known as a classic. Good news—we can identify some attributes of classic literature. Bad news—no book becomes a classic in the author’s lifetime, so you won’t find out if your book made the list until after you’ve been dead awhile.

ClassicsI’ve blogged before about the attributes of good, quality short stories, but today’s question is about the few books that attain true classic status. These must pass a more stringent test.

Easy, but Unsatisfying Definition

Many people say that a classic is that which endures, stands the test of time, and which people still read long, long after the author is dead. In his book Antifragile, Hassim Taleb states that you can make a rough prediction about how long a book will remain in print. The average time a book will remain in print from this point on is equal to the time it has been in print so far.

To me, this definition of a classic, though true, doesn’t really settle anything. It begs the question, why do readers today still want to read this book? Let’s accept that a classic must endure, but I want to explore why this is so.

Other Folks’ Definitions

I’m not the first to knock on the door to this party; in fact I’m way past fashionably late. Many people before me have come up with great definitions of what makes a classic.

  • Italo Calvino says you can’t feel indifferent to a classic. That definition makes it a personal connection between book and reader. However, that’s not so useful to an author trying to write a classic.
  • Blogger Chris Cox builds on Mark Twain’s definition. There are two kinds of classics, those we’re embarrassed not to have read yet, and those we nag others to read. Funny, but again it concentrates on the reader-to-book connection.
  • The French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve said the author of a classic “….has enriched the human mind…caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered…who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.” This is closer to what I’m looking for—let’s hold those thoughts.
  • Goethe said it’s not a classic because it’s old, but because it’s forever new. I like that one.
  • Some blog commenters have said a classic had some impact or effect on the age in which it’s written. That may be true for most classics, but not all such books endure.
  • Others say a classic is that which is new or innovative in its time. But, again, it’s not clear to me why such books would necessarily stand the test of time.
  • Jonathan Jones, a writer for The Guardian, says a classic must be elastic. That is, it endures despite plagiarism, satire, criticism, etc. Hassim Taleb would hasten to add that such pummeling of a classic makes it stronger, more enduring, and to use his word, antifragile. I like this attribute too, but it’s more about the reaction to a book rather than the writing of it.

My Definition

Borrowing the attributes I like and rejecting the rest, here are my rules. A classic for the ages must:

  • capture its time
  • be well written
  • say something profound and permanent about the human condition

There you have it. Write your book that way, and it might become a classic someday. Something for your great-grandchildren to enjoy. Currently at work on a classic, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 2, 2014Permalink