Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Writing Skill Point Allocation

Fair warning, this post is less of a writing lesson, and more of a brain dump. I’m talking about ideas I haven’t really finished developing, so it may be a little scattered. It will give you a terrifying insight into how my mind works though.

In ‘On Writing’ Stephen King talks about the writer’s toolbox. I am not sure if he coined the term, but ‘On Writing’ was where I first read about it.

It refers to the idea that writing skills, and elements of writing, are tools in a toolbox that writers use to construct stories. Stephen King suggests we need to use the correct tool for the job. For example, if you wanted to show that a character was crass, you could use dialogue.

It’s quite common for writers to use these tool metaphors when speaking about the different elements of writing: description, exposition, dialogue, etc.

It can be a useful metaphor. However, on Friday the 28th of July, I went to an hour-long discussion panel with CS Pacat and Peter Ball at the QWC. It was quite a general talk, but Pacat is a master wordsmith, with a fantastic understanding of writing and writing elements. It’s no surprise her books have been such a success. While the talk wasn’t focused on writing skills, she did mention two very interesting concepts, one of which, was the idea of ‘writing skill point allocation’.

She and Peter were discussing authors such as Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown and Suzanne Collins, who many readers find to have a number of stylistic weaknesses, but are nonetheless very successful as authors. They have what Pacat calls ‘narrative traction’ and after a little googling, I have concluded it is a term coin by Pacat, and one I would like to discuss further in a later blog post.

An audience member asked if having great narrative traction meant you had to sacrifice other writing strengths and Pacat said: “That’s an interesting question. I don’t think so, I think it’s just if you have ten writing skill points and you allocate five of them to narrative traction, then you only have five left to put into all the other things.”

As an avid gamer, I instantly loved the metaphor. Writing Skill Point Allocation. It made so much sense. As in video games, you see some writers who are all-rounders, allocating their points evenly and not really excelling anywhere. Then you see others who have gone full glass-canon. All their points are in one area, leaving the others woefully inadequate.

However, since narrative traction tends to sell very well, those who have allocated all their points writing points there, still do quite well. Even if their world building, characters and general style are somewhat lacking.

This morning, I was reading a sample of a romance novel. The emotional resonance was so intense, within half a page, I was completely invested in these two characters and their relationship. However, the dialogue was awful, there was virtually no description and the exposition was so heavy-handed and awkward it made me cringe.

Still, I was going to click buy. Just because the emotion resonance was spectacular. Until the tension broke right before the sample ended. The two characters confessed they loved one and other and I thought: ‘Well, there’s no point in reading anymore. The tension is resolved.’ It didn’t matter what the rest of the book was about, I had what I came for.

The author should have invested a few points in conflict and tension.

It occurs to me, I have no idea where my own writing points are allocated. For my own personal development, I am writing a list of writing skills. I’m going to re-read some of my favourite books, giving them points in each skill until I can tally their final score. I’d also like to compare that to any sales data I can dig up to compare their final tally and the areas they excel to raw sales data.

As Pacat identified, I think the books that sold better will have higher scores in specific areas. I think a lot of best sellers have very high narrative traction skills, however I suspect my personal favourite books will score higher on character development and world building.

The current list of skills I have identified (which I am still adding to) is as follows:

- Character development
- Dialogue
- Exposition
- Description
- Narrative Traction
- World Building
- Emotional resonance
- Sociological resonance
- Sensory resonance
- Style
- Voice
- Pacing
- Tension and Stakes
- Structure and plotting
- Action

Since I already have 15 skills on the list and we all use most of them in some way or another, even if it is poorly, the base number of points a person can have is probably 15, one in each. When I analyse works, the maximum score someone can receive in a skill will be ten.

However, looking at my favourite authors, I can already see they would receive different scores for different books. Skill level is not set in stone and they will rise and fall depending on the project, and probably the day of the week.

So why am I sharing all this?

Well, hopefully to give you a new perspective on writing that will help you improve yours. And help you give better feedback to others. If we can first identity these skills in writing, then learn how they function, we can help others identify their weaknesses and show them what skills they need to develop to improve.

I’m not sure if I will ever be able to disconnect from my own writing enough to rank my own skills realistically. However, I do have at least three skills that I am consciously trying to improve and learn more about. (Dialogue, narrative traction and emotional resonance.)

Maybe looking at this list you feel the same way, and you suddenly know what you want to research and look for in other people’s writing. Or maybe you’re more objective than me and are willing to sit down and analyse your own writing to identify where your strengths and weaknesses are.

If you can think of any authors you think have earned a ten in any of those fifteen skill areas, please posts a comment here or drop me a line on twitter and tell me who they are I’d love to check them out!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Rejection Game

A New Angle On Failure

This quote is from “Art & Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This is true of pretty much anything you want to learn. Writing, art, cooking, music, sport, sewing, language skills, whatever. The more you do it, the better you will be. For some reason, we don’t apply this to success. We don’t say ‘the more times you try and succeed, the more times you will succeed’. Maybe because it’s really awkward to say.

Speaking from personal experience, when you try and create a new recipe from scratch, the first attempt almost always fails. You must make the same dish over and over, in slightly different ways, binning the results in between, before you get what you were trying to create.

That is exactly what you must do when it comes to querying publishers and agents.

When it comes to writing, it’s not just about writing all the time to get better. You also must pitch all the time to get better. But that is very scary, because it’s very binary. Someone says ‘no’ or they say ‘yes’ and if we think of the ‘no’ as a very negative, painful thing, we avoid it. Sometimes we even think we’re doing something wrong.

After all, the people we aspire to be like got ‘yes’. Or they wouldn’t be published. But they also got lots of ‘no’.

To trick your brain into looking at rejections differently, you must think of them differently. Imagine rejections are XP and you need to get a certain amount to level up. 100, to be exact. This is the rejection game.

You must fail 100 times before you succeed.

100 is an arbitrary number. I think humans like it because we have ten fingers and it takes ten people to make 100 fingers. If we had cartoon hands, we’d like the number 64 a lot more.

So maybe you must gather 70 rejections or maybe you must gather 400 rejections. 100 rejections is a great goal to start with, either way. Your goal is to imagine that when you hit 100 rejections you will magically be handed success. Rejections are objects of power you are trying to collect, not obstacles you have to climb over.

If your goal is just to have a short story published, it may only take 20 rejections. But if your goal is to be a best seller, you’re looking up around the 900 mark, because there is going to be dozens of publications, perhaps even hundreds if you sell a lot of shorts, between you and that goal.

So, don’t resist getting rejections, get as many of them as you can. You are a hungry, hungry hippo and they are delicious marbles.

Which brings us to rule 2 of the rejection game.

They must be different failures each time.

Let’s say you send out a query, synopsis and blurb to a publisher and three months later you get a rejection. Firstly, three months is pretty quick, so that’s nice. Secondly, if you send out the same query letter, synopsis and chapter to the next publisher, it’s the same failure. So, when you are tallying your 100 failures, both submissions count as one failure. If you send it to 50 publishers without editing, it’s still one failure, not 50.

Get your goddamn shit together and learn from your mistakes. Improve between submissions. Get feedback, do research, take a workshop, re-write, whatever.

They must be real failures, not failures you imagined.

Sometimes when someone is freaking out about something, I ask them to describe the worst possible outcome in as much detail as they can. People usually find this quite easy. Unless they are too ashamed to admit it, then they sort of faff around.

Ninety percent of anxiety is directed at things that will never happen. Ninety percent of your anxiety is wasted energy. Anxiety is a function to stop us killing ourselves. Like if your five-year-old climbs up onto the roof with a superhero cape, that anxiety has a function. You tell them to get down, your heart is in your mouth, you probably saved them a broken leg. Good job, anxiety.

The job of anxiety is to protect us and the people around us from dangerous situations. But getting a story rejected ISN’T DANGEROUS. Despite what you have heard, it’s not a Jumanji situation, where you open a rejection and a tiger leaps of out of your computer screen and chases your family around the house.

It’s just a step in the path to success. One you feel unfounded anxiety about. It’s not saying ‘you’ll never be published’ its saying ‘you have to work a bit harder’. And you must be okay with that to make it in publishing.

Sometimes we imagine rejection so vividly, it feels like it’s already happened. We’ve convinced ourselves it’s real. But it’s not. I’ve had this conversation with people over and over:

Them: “I keep getting rejected.”
Me: “How many rejections have you had this month?”
Them: “I didn’t submit anything this month.”
Me: “What is your tally this year then?”
Them: “I don’t know exactly.”
Me: “Twenty, thirty?”
Them: “I haven’t really submitted anything this year.”
Me: “What is the last rejection you remember getting?”
Them: I submitted a short story to X.”
Me: “The one I gave feedback on four years ago?”
Them: “Yeah, I’d submitted that before I got feedback from you. It got rejected.”

One rejection in four years is not ‘keep getting rejected’ territory. You must submit things and be rejected, before you can be rejected. This is basic stuff, but so many people are stuck in this loop of reliving one or two rejections over and over like they have rejection PTSD.

Win The Rejection Game!

If you only get ten rejections a year, it’s going to take you TEN YEARS to get to 100.

If it takes 100 rejections to succeed, then you need to get your goddamn ass into gear.

Write shit, submit it, edit it before you submit it again. Repeat. Tally your rejections. You’re aiming for 100. Ready, set, go.

You can be rejected multiple times a day if you follow me on twitter! Maybe. Depends what you ask me, I suppose. If I reject you for a date it doesn’t count toward your writing rejection tally. Maybe you have a dating rejection tally. I don’t know your life. Follow me on twitter anyway.