Fiction Writing: Not Your Normal Day Job

If you work at a typical desk job and want to write fiction at night, be prepared. The two occupations are not at all alike. But what if your day job suddenly got altered to be more like fiction writing? Let’s find out what that would be like.

You wake up at whatever time you like; you’re now setting your own hours. There’s no commute. You telework every day. No one sees you working, or checks on your progress. There are no meetings, no boring chats by the coffee machine, and no lunches with clients. Knock off early every day if you want; nobody cares how long you work.

Sounds like a dream job, right? There’s a down side.

Sitting at your computer, you produce your first work product of the day. (What’s the product? I don’t know; we’re talking about your current day job.) You e-mail it to your boss and wait. A few hours later, your boss e-mails you back to say the product didn’t suit her needs. She says she can’t accept it.

You’re stunned. She’s rejected your work. How can she do that? You know this job well and have worked at it for years. You e-mail her back asking what sort of product she needs, and asking what’s specifically wrong with the one you sent. She answers that she’s looking for really compelling products the customer will like. Moreover, she receives too many product submissions to list the deficiencies with each one; she only has time to accept or reject.

Her e-mail concludes on a positive and unexpected note, wishing you well with the product, adding that you can submit to any other department head in the company. That’s weird, you think. It’s as if, all of a sudden, you have more than one boss.

With some trepidation, you submit the work product to another department head. An hour later, he responds, thanking you but also saying it doesn’t suit his needs. You’re disappointed, but not shocked. By now, you’re catching on to the new company procedure and you simply submit your product to a different department head.

During the next two weeks, you submit it to every department head and all of them reject your product. Some take less than an hour to respond, but others take days. While waiting on them, you’ve been able to do other stuff around the house, watch some movies, and hit the bar scene on a few nights. The rejections distress you, though; things never used to be that way.

Ah, well, at least it’s payday, finally. Checking your bank account, you’re stunned to discover there’s been no money deposited to your account. You call the Pay Department, and the representative explains you had no products accepted during the pay period, so there’s no pay. The company is no longer on a salary system; they pay you only for accepted products, and calculate the amount based on customer purchases.

Hanging up the phone, you have a “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. In this new system, you realize you’ll have to churn out products fast, keep circulating them, and hope a few get accepted and that customers like them.

E-mailing a few friendly co-workers, you discover most are in the same boat, with zero pay. Word has it that one employee tripled her monthly income, but was told that was no guarantee of future earnings.

Welcome, fellow worker, to the fiction writing biz, where success is rare, and determined in part by how well you learn your craft and whether a fickle public likes your stories. You can complain the system’s unfair or rigged, but whining probably won’t make you feel better, and sure won’t change anything.

Fortunately, day jobs aren’t set up like the writing business. Still, writing makes a highly enjoyable hobby for most authors. Among them is—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Writing with Spectators

In his book The Way the Future Was, the late science fiction author Frederik Pohl stated, “Writing is not a spectator sport.” Oh, yeah? I set out to prove him wrong.

I rented a football stadium, hired two commentators, and advertised for several thousand of my fans to watch me write. Here’s the transcript, as broadcast:

Pat: “It’s a beautiful afternoon here at the stadium and we’ve got quite a crowd for this amazing event. Wouldn’t you say so, John?”

John: “No doubt about that, Pat, weather-wise and crowd-size-wise. But this is the first time I’ve covered one of these writer athletes, and I’m not sure what to expect.”

Pat: “It’s a first for both of us. Look, the writer himself has entered the field and is making his way to the center, and the crowd’s cheering.”

John: “I like his confidence. You can see it in his walk. He’s not swaggering or strutting, just striding with confidence. I like that.”

Pat: “Tonight’s writer is Steven R. Southard. He’s been writing for several seasons already, and his career is on an upswing. He’s reached midfield now and is sitting at the desk there. The crowd is settling down. I’m guessing things will start soon.”

John: “I’m a bit confused, Pat. There’s no team with him. No opposing team out there, either. Not a single referee, and no coaches pacing the sidelines.”

Pat: “I guess that’s the way writing is, John. Must be a solitary thing. Look, Steve has turned on his computer. The stadium scoreboard is off so I don’t know if time has started or not.”

John: “I think we must have a second-rate writer, here, Pat. This guy is just staring into space. He hasn’t typed a thing. Now he’s sipping some coffee. I sorta expected more action, typing-wise.”

Pat: “Maybe fiction writing isn’t all typing. Apparently there is some amount of thinking involved, too.”

John: “If he keeps this up, he’s going to be traded in the off-season. This is just the kind of lazy work ethic that…hold on. He’s typing on the keyboard now. He’s actually typing.”

Pat: “True, John, he is. We can’t see the words from here. We’ll see if we can get a close-up view. He’s definitely pounding out some prose.”

John: “And the crowd’s getting into it, too. They can sense the energy. Still, he might want to work on his posture, because—uh, oh. He stopped. Did he call for a timeout? We’re back to that staring-into-space play that didn’t work before. How many timeouts do they allow in this sport?”

Pat: “I’m not sure, but we’re going to cut to a commercial break. Don’t change the channel, folks. There’s more exciting action coming up.”

——————————————————–

Pat: “We’re back, live at the stadium. There was some activity during the break.”

John: (odd sound, possibly yawning) “Yeah, but it was the wrong kinda action, Pat. No typing at all. Southard got up from his chair and paced around the desk a few times, gesturing and talking to himself. He’s not going to get any stories written that way.”

Pat: “He sure isn’t. A lot of fans seem to agree too, and are leaving for the parking lot. It’s hard to know if our writer is making any progress down there on the field.”

John: “Progress? He hardly moves. I can’t stand this anymore. This isn’t a sport! The boredom is killing me. I’d rather watch goalposts rust, or wait for Astroturf to grow. I’m leaving.”

Pat: “We’ve only been here fifteen minutes, John.”

John: “Then why do I feel fifteen years older, age-wise?”

The broadcast ended soon after that when both commentators and all the camera operators left. Perhaps Frederik Pohl was right after all, um, correctness-wise. From now on, writing will return to being a non-spectator event for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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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

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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

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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

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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—

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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.

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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—

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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—

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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

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December 7, 2014Permalink