J.A. Konrath’s Unreproduceable Phenomenons

J.A. Konrath has a nice post up on the magical science that goes into selling a book. He coins the phrase “unreproduceable phenomenon” to describe how the same elements can go into two different books being published at the same time, and one sells while the other does not. I agree with his premise and his conclusions, and think that it points out a grave weakness in the whole “learn to write” industry. Let me rephrase that… the whole “learn how to get published” industry.
I’ve recently read Donald Maass’ “Writing the Breakout Novel.” (Hi, my name is Sean, and I’m addicted to ‘how-to-write” books.) While I think that Mr. Maass covers a lot of ground that is very good for a writer to consider before submitting a book to an agent or publisher, I thought the book had two inherint weaknesses. First, it implies that most every element he discusses should be considered if not prior to then at least during the writing process. To me this is lunacy. He discusses theme, plot, characterization, character development, tone, genre, style, and everything in between. When I’m writing my only concern is what word should follow the previous one. I build word towers and hope they don’t collapse on me or get knocked over by a tangential plot line or a sudden gust of weak writing. I am not thinking, “This sentence really needs to build on my theme while also showing my character’s spritual ennui.” I’m thinking “Does this word fit here? What the ####?!” The questions Mr. Maass presents are, for me and I hope for many other writers, for revision, where the heart of writing takes place. And to be totally clear and fair to Mr. Maass, I do think he knows this. It’s just a little too subtly mentioned and his book unfortunately takes on a tone of “When you have pen on paper, think of these 12 things at once.”
The second weakness in his book is the same weakness in every “get published” book I’ve read. It’s a formula. He is very supportive of finding your own voice, and he’s very keen on pointing out that there are a thousand thousand ways to write a story, but at base he’s still promoting the idea that plugging into the collective consciousness is simply a matter of X+Y=Z. This simply can’t be the case. That brings me back to Mr. Konrath’s premise. You can have success, and the other guy doesn’t, and no one may be able to tell you why. Like the cold fusion experiments which pop up every once in a while, someone screams “EUREKA” and then everyone runs around excitedly trying to repeat the results. Unfortunately, for a writer, that attempt at repeating results takes years of our life and a thousand thousand word towers, and so, so many of them end up collapsing onto our heads.

Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson is one of the few writers that I read and reread on a regular basis. It’s really unfortunate that I do that because he always makes me emulate him and I can’t write as well as he can, so I get frustrated and disappointed in myself. What I admire most is his complete, emotional honesty and his ability to use that to over-ride other elements which might otherwise distract a reader. So wrapped up am I in his character’s stripping away of their self-protective barriers that time-shifts, changes in POV and dislocation from space and time all become irrelavant. And I don’t mean to sound like those are weaknesses in his writing that he ignores-they are intentional and controlled, and they make his writing like a fevered dream where you know that logically you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing, but you enjoy it anyway.
I’m always amazed at his controlled abandon. I just recently read Days Between Stations, his first published novel, and came across a listing for him in Wikipedia which said that he had been writing for years before he finally published that. When he did, he destroyed all of his earlier work. I can’t help but wonder what pieces were caught up in the smoke as those pages burned. What other fevered dreams drifted away. I think we all may have inhaled some of them, those pieces of smoke, or at least I did. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to his work.
Anyway, here are two good interviews with Mr. Erickson.
LA City Beat’s article
Rakes Progress’ article

The Bizarro Rule

I’ve been reading posts in various writer’s forums in which the question of how to create conflict comes up. With that in the back of my mind, I had an idea while reading this The New York Times article Help, I’m Surrounded by Jerks by Stephanie Rosenbloom. It examines a number of books meant to help us through our days dealing with cantankerous, crumudgeonly, crotchety cretins. In short: the people who make our lives miserable. As I read it I found that, aside from their primary purpose as a guide on how to make it through life without killing someone like the office-gossip, these books could offer an interesting roadmap on character traits and possibly an insight into how and why characters are the way they are. Some of the descriptions found in the books could be a recipe for character creation.
For example:
… [E]veryone knows at least one person who can set the blood boiling. They can be found in corporate offices, on co-op boards, in church choirs and on university faculties. They are the office Cassandra who predicts doom for every project her team initiates, the intimidating boss for whom nothing is ever good enough and the unreasonable receptionist at the motor vehicles office.
…For Ann Rothman, a Manhattan real estate agent, her difficult person is a know-it-all friend who simply cannot be pleased.
“She’s a superior human being, and she comes from a superior area — Berkeley, Calif.,” Ms. Rothman said. “She has told me many times that there are only two places to get good food. One of them is Berkeley, and one of them is France. And France is only second to Berkeley.”

Notice that this is a FRIEND she’s talking about?
…[Some] say that rather than seeing the office curmudgeon or the post office nitpicker as the sum of their most wretched behavior, it is better to think of them as full people, even to empathize with them, if only to maintain some sense of control.
Easier said than done. But psychologists say people exhibit difficult behavior because they have a need that is not being met. Understanding that need — a colleague may be snappish, for instance, because his personal life is in turmoil — helps take the sting out of his or her actions, they say.

That’s the sort of complexity I’m suggesting. You many not need to tell your reader’s explicity what the unmet need is, but maybe your knowing will help the depth of the character.
“Some people really are bad people,” said Mark I. Rosen, a social scientist at Brandeis… “but I don’t think the percentage is as high as people think it is.” Instead, he said, “most people fall into the category of incompetent or oblivious.”
Several authors think it is useful to characterize infuriating people into types and prescribe ways to deal with them, as Robert M. Bramson did in 1981 in “Coping With Difficult People,” one of the first popular books on the topic. Its overarching lesson is to find a way to communicate with these people because they are not going away. Dr. Bramson lists seven difficult behavior types: Hostile-Aggressives, Complainers, Silent and Unresponsives, Super-Agreeables, Know-It-All Experts, Negativists and Indecisives.

This list of categories is, I think, a nice starting point if you’re stuck on how to deepen a secondary character in a scene that’s a little flat.
…“How many mother-in-law stories have you heard?” he asked. “It’s not disproportionate in the workplace, but often what it is, is that the stakes are so big for people. Career is at the center of people’s lives.”
Workplaces are competitive environments comprising individuals with disparate styles of working and communicating. With so many temperaments thrown together, every office is a powder keg.
For instance, there are those who think they are powerless, that their ideas go unheard or are dismissed and who believe they are not valued, feelings that can turn into chronically difficult behavior.

On top of character creation, the books may give a nice set of tools for creating conflict in your fiction. To use them for conflict creation I think you’d have to use the Bizarro Rule. In other words, have your characters do the opposite of the suggested techniques of diffusing a troublesome encounter.
For instance, the article says, “The lessons include common sense (talk it out and put yourself in their shoes), character by character tactical road maps and something that the victims of the difficult don’t want to hear: they might be the problem.”
I think that doing exactly the opposite would create a strong dynamic in a scene. For example, how might the following be used, following the Bizzaro Rule, to create a good scene where the main character does the opposite of the defusing suggestions:

These authors say that after categorizing the difficult behavior, you can take steps to rein it in. For example, Dr. Rick Brinkman, a seminar leader and an author of “Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst,” calls one category Whiners. These people rattle off an endless loop of complaints and must be coaxed into problem solving.
He suggests listening to them and letting them vent. Chances are, he said, their complaints will be vague and exaggerated. When they begin to repeat their gripes, summarize for them what they have said. Then begin asking specific questions.
“You have to keep asking them what they think they should do,” Dr. Brinkman said, to press for resolutions. You might finally say something outrageous, like “What if we were to kill everyone in the other department?”

Jim Butcher vs. The Great Swampy Middle

Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files books (soon to be a SCI-FI original series), has a nice essay up on his site about getting past the Great Swampy Middle (GSM) which threatens every writers work in progress. It’s got some very helpful advice on getting past those parts of a work-in-progress which trip you up (subplots, mini-arcs, new characters). It’s really a very smart piece and has great tips.
However, I’ve met the GSM before, and while it’s not very nice, Mr. Butcher is a little unfair to it. I’ll let you in on a little secret: the GSM doesn’t always turn out to be an enemy. Mr. Butcher ends his essay saying that the best way to avoid getting lost in the middle is to outline. This is true. But I don’t outline. I find it restraining and feel that I don’t work as hard when I know too far in advance how I’m getting to the next section, scene, or even bit of dialogue. That’s where the GSM can be a help. A little free-writing, a little free-wheeling, and some careful revision can tighten up a GSM and find treasure. Pam Painter, a writing teacher of mine at Emerson College, referred to “gifts” that a writer gives to themselves. This is anything that appears, unexpectedly, in your writing which can be taken and used in a number of ways or different scenes, an object or character or image or symbol that can be replanted, again and again throughout a story or novel. It can be something that appears on the last page of your first draft, and that thing can be taken and replanted throughout the book by you as you create your second draft. It’s hidden gems that you find along the way, through exploratory writing, through the stuff that might get cut. So, while GSM’s can be hard, they aren’t always horrible.