Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? It is a crippling and debilitating affliction that rivels writer’s cramp for its perniciousness.
Researchers, knowing the harm that writer’s block can cause, have been undertaking decades of research into potential treatments. The seminal work was written in 1974 by Dennis Upper.
As you can see, it was a very concise paper that encapsulated the issue perfectly. Upper’s research was semi-influential and spawned several other studies on the issue. This culminated in a meta-analysis in 2014.
The meta-analysis covered all the relevant studies and data from 40 years of research. The study makes it clear that most treatments are unsuccessful at addressing writer’s block. Table 1, below, outlines the body of research and word counts under each treatment setting.
While these studies and the meta-analysis suggest that there is no hope for those suffering from this disease, we shouldn’t be shuffling those afflicted into a career in programming bitcoin farms. They need to be treated with dignity and respect, not cast aside into worthless activities that destroy the planet.
So, before it is too late for writer’s block sufferers, try to talk to them about how many words Stephen King writes per day. Mention that Enid Blyton wrote over 800 novels in her career, including a period of time where it wasn’t uncommon for her to write a book every two to three days. Or that Ryoki Inoue published 1075 novels and that he writes night and day without any breaks until he finishes a book.
Something I’ve been musing about for – checks calendar – YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME, IT’S ONLY BEEN A YEAR???
Sorry, anyway, something I’ve been musing about is writing during a pandemic. At the start of lockdowns, I remember hearing the buzz about how there would be a rush of book submissions to agents and publishers with everyone having lots of time to write. All those people who believed they had a novel stuck inside them now had enough time to pull out the scalpel and repeatedly stab themselves until they realised they should have taken their doctor more seriously.
Punny terms aside, the article in The Guardian touches on much of what I’ve been thinking about without really understanding the issue. It hints at the problem without really spelling it out.
It all comes down to how the creative space works. You need to be able to let your mind wander off to the plains of [insert metaphor here, something really wankery that fits with us creative types] where your story can take shape. To let your mind wander requires a lack of interruptions, a level and type of noise that isn’t distracting, and you have to not be stressed (see my posts on these topics).
Now, what could possibly be getting in the way of creativity during Covid-19?
This is why the original articles talking about how lockdowns would lead to a splurge of novels always seemed optimistic to me. There were only superficial conditions for creativity, not the actual conditions for it. Just having kids in the house all day would be distracting enough to turn the best of times into the blurst of times. Add in working from home and the noted work creep that has had. Add in not working. Add in working on what is called the front-lines in a great reference to trench warfare – and how far away the generals are holding their tea party. Add in home-schooling. Add in stress, financial or existential. Add in feeling crowded in your workspace and then not leaving that workspace for weeks/months on end.
These aren’t the conditions for writing. These are the conditions for sitting on the couch, huddled under a blanket, mindlessly scrolling through social media in search of that sweet sweet shot of endorphins. Is it any surprise that baking sourdough bread, watching terrible Netflix original movies, and tidying the house became popular in 2020?
I recognised this early on and didn’t put too much pressure on myself to write. Sorry, rather, I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to write quality material. Writing wasn’t the problem. Having it resemble something that wasn’t a desperate cry for help or a tirade that would be combed over by profilers wondering why I’d committed such an unspeakable act was the problem.
I’m sure there are writers out there who haven’t had a problem with lockdowns and creativity. From what I’ve seen, dedicated workspaces for writing and a history of consistent writing habits (and being an empty nester) are helpful. But for the rest of us, creativity has been given all the wrong conditions to thrive, so don’t be too hard on yourself.
Or do be hard on yourself. Maybe we could have learned how to be creative under pressure. Maybe we do suck!
This month’s It’s Lit! dives into the world of graphic novels.
Obviously, I’m a fan of graphic novels. I think that the format provides an interesting and engaging storytelling method. Sometimes I think of graphic novels as a step between novels and movies (storyboards anyone?). Other times I think of them as a great way to pair down a story to its elements. And then there are the times when I don’t think too hard and just enjoy reading graphic novels.
I’ve previously written about how the snobbery of literature is especially pointed when it comes to graphic novels. And it always seems to come back to holding up a very certain kind of novel as “literature” and everything else as “unworthy”. Something I’ve come to call defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.
Maybe if people just gave graphic novels a chance to entertain them…
In the past few decades, literature has expanded to not only mean the “novel” but “graphic novels” as well. Today we are gonna break down how the graphic novel went from the comic book store to the classroom. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
You might have seen a recent article from The Guardian written by “a robot”. Here’s a sample:
I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!
Read the whole thing and you may be astonished at how coherent and stylistically consistent it is. The software used to produce it is called a “generative model”, and they have come a long way in the past year or two.
But exactly how was the article created? And is it really true that software “wrote this entire article”?
How machines learn to write
The text was generated using the latest neural network model for language, called GPT-3, released by the American artificial intelligence research company OpenAI. (GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer.)
But let’s step back and look at what text generation software actually does.
Machine learning approaches fall into three main categories: heuristic models, statistical models, and models inspired by biology (such as neural networks and evolutionary algorithms).
Heuristic approaches are based on “rules of thumb”. For example, we learn rules about how to conjugate verbs: I run, you run, he runs, and so on. These approaches aren’t used much nowadays because they are inflexible.
Statistical approaches were the state of the art for language-related tasks for many years. At the most basic level, they involve counting words and guessing what comes next.
As a simple exercise, you could generate text by randomly selecting words based on how often they normally occur. About 7% of your words would be “the” – it’s the most common word in English. But if you did it without considering context, you might get nonsense like “the the is night aware”.
More sophisticated approaches use “bigrams”, which are pairs of consecutive words, and “trigrams”, which are three-word sequences. This allows a bit of context and lets the current piece of text inform the next. For example, if you have the words “out of”, the next guessed word might be “time”.
This happens with the auto-complete and auto-suggest features when we write text messages or emails. Based on what we have just typed, what we tend to type and a pre-trained background model, the system predicts what’s next.
While bigram- and trigram-based statistical models can produce good results in simple situations, the best recent models go to another level of sophistication: deep learning neural networks.
Imitating the brain
Neural networks work a bit like tiny brains made of several layers of virtual neurons.
A neuron receives some input and may or may not “fire” (produce an output) based on that input. The output feeds into neurons in the next layer, cascading through the network.
The first artificial neuron was proposed in 1943 by US neuroscientists Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, but they have only become useful for complex problems like generating text in the past five years.
To use neural networks for text, you put words into a kind of numbered index. You can use the number to represent a word, so for example 23,342 might represent “time”.
Neural networks do a series of calculations to go from sequences of numbers at the input layer, through the interconnected “hidden layers” inside, to the output layer. The output might be numbers representing the odds for each word in the index to be the next word of the text.
In our “out of” example, number 23,432 representing “time” would probably have much better odds than the number representing “do”.
GPT-3 is the latest and best of the text modelling systems, and it’s huge. The authors say it has 175 billion parameters, which makes it at least ten times larger than the previous biggest model. The neural network has 96 layers and, instead of mere trigrams, it keeps track of sequences of 2,048 words.
The most expensive and time-consuming part of making a model like this is training it – updating the weights on the connections between neurons and layers. Training GPT-3 would have used about 262 megawatt-hours of energy, or enough to run my house for 35 years.
GPT-3 can be applied to multiple tasks such as machine translation, auto-completion, answering general questions, and writing articles. While people can often tell its articles are not written by human authors, we are now likely to get it right only about half the time.
The robot writer
But back to how the article in The Guardian was created. GPT-3 needs a prompt of some kind to start it off. The Guardian’s staff gave the model instructions and some opening sentences.
This was done eight times, generating eight different articles. The Guardian’s editors then combined pieces from the eight generated articles, and “cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places”, saying “editing GPT-3’s op-ed was no different to editing a human op-ed”.
This sounds about right to me, based on my own experience with text-generating software. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I used GPT-2 to write the lyrics for a song we entered in the AI Song Contest, a kind of artificial intelligence Eurovision.
We fine-tuned the GPT-2 model using lyrics from Eurovision songs, provided it with seed words and phrases, then selected the final lyrics from the generated output.
For example, we gave Euro-GPT-2 the seed word “flying”, and then chose the output “flying from this world that has gone apart”, but not “flying like a trumpet”. By automatically matching the lyrics to generated melodies, generating synth sounds based on koala noises, and applying some great, very human, production work, we got a good result: our song, Beautiful the World, was voted the winner of the contest.
Co-creativity: humans and AI together
So can we really say an AI is an author? Is it the AI, the developers, the users or a combination?
A useful idea for thinking about this is “co-creativity”. This means using generative tools to spark new ideas, or to generate some components for our creative work.
Where an AI creates complete works, such as a complete article, the human becomes the curator or editor. We roll our very sophisticated dice until we get a result we’re happy with.
The Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer was regarded by his friends as a master in the art of mind-wandering. He could become ‘enwrapped’ in his own pleasant reflections, wrote the German humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, at which times Dürer ‘would seem the happiest person on Earth’.
Many of us are familiar with mind-wandering in a number of guises: procrastination, reflection, meditation, self-flagellation, daydreaming. But while some mental meandering seems fruitful, on other occasions it has the unmistakeable bite of a bad habit, something that holds us back from reaching our full potential. Reverie can be a reprieve from reality and a font of inspiration, yes. But equally familiar is the mind’s tendency to devolve into sour and fruitless rumination when left to its own devices, especially when we’re in the grip of depression, anxiety or obsession.
Can art itself be a useful catalyst for nudging us towards more helpful emotions and mental states? Whether in the form of literature, rap or abstract oil painting, many of us know we can improve the tenor of our thoughts by contemplating art. The Germans have a lovely saying for the benefits of keeping an idle (or idling) mind: ‘die Seele baumeln lassen’, meaning ‘let the soul dangle’. Now, the emerging science of neuroaesthetics is beginning to reveal the biological processes that sit behind such ‘dangling’.
To begin with, contemporary cognitive science has presented a vast amount of evidence that mental states send and receive ripples of cause and effect across the rest of the body. Think how your mouth might water when you look at a photo of a tasty chocolate cake, or how tense you feel when watching a suspenseful TV drama. Thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether aimless or deliberate, are a somatic cascade of multiple biological events. And it’s this cascade that art somehow taps into.
Galen, the second-century Greek physician, was well aware of the connection between mind and body. He believed that mind-wandering was the result of physical and mental lassitude, and so prescribed a regime of logic and hard, structured work to avoid it. ‘Laziness breeds humours of the blood!’ Galen is believed to have said. The assumption here is that concentration is a kind of psychobiological discipline, something we have to work at to stop our wayward minds and bodies from veering out of our control.
However, there’s an even older tradition from Ancient Greece that views daydreaming as a boost to our wellbeing. Galen’s Hippocratic forebears argued that mind-wandering was in fact the best strategy for guiding us back into healthy states. And modern-day research in developmental psychology has shown that children and adults who engage in certain kinds of mind-wandering actually display more cognitive flexibility, and perform better when called upon to exercise ‘executive’ functions such as problem-solving, planning and managing their own thoughts and feelings.
Neuroimaging – a method of ‘seeing’ the brain in action – has started to reveal the brain processes that correlate with these mental states. Far from falling idle, the brains of people asked to stay still and think of nothing in particular continue to fizz and pop in patterns of activity known as the default mode network (DMN). These activations are closely related to those engaged during self-referential thinking, the experience of the self, and intuition. Moreover, they are observed alongside activation patterns in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the area typically associated with those important ‘executive’ functions. Strikingly, the greater the strength of the relationship between these two domains of the brain – intuition and executive function – the more creativity a person tends to display when asked to solve a problem. Brain scans demonstrate correlation, not causation; but even so, they hint at the possibility that reverie might help to prime us to think both productively and creatively by somehow cementing our sense of self, drawing body and mind together in a train of thought and biological action.
Art can be a catalyst for this sort of reverie, as well as a tool to regulate and control it. Both the basic properties of art (whether it’s in a minor or major key; the colours of a painting), as well as the complexities of its content (the lyrics of a song, the facial expression of a person in a painting), can induce reflections and emotions – and will invariably affect our body’s physiology. Thinking creatively, and engaging with works of art, have both been correlated with DMN activity – especially when people report that the aesthetic experience was particularly strong and meaningful to them. In these moments, our encounter with art seems to trigger an autobiographical daydreaming, a flow experience with a ‘me factor’.
Of course, art can also provoke unhelpful ruminative urges. Listening over and again to that song might not help you get over a heartbreak. But art-induced sadness doesn’t always make you slide into negative mental loops. In fact, art can help us adapt to the immediate source of pain by acting as a prop for emotional catharsis. We all know the strange, pleasurable, consoling feeling that comes after having a good cry. This experience appears to be precipitated by the release of the hormone prolactin, which has also been associated with a boosted immune system, as well as bonding with other people. The arts are a relatively safe space in which to have such an emotional episode, compared with the real-life emotional situations that make us cry. Even sad or otherwise distressing art can be used to trigger a kind of positive, psychobiological cleansing via mind-wandering.
History is full of examples of the relationship between reverie and creativity. Here is one, idiosyncratic example: the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) organised his library of 50,000 books with the aim of promoting mind-wandering. His collection was the kernel for the Warburg Institute in London, where we now work as researchers. Each of the library’s four floors is devoted to one of four themes – image, word, orientation, and action – and separated into sub-themes, such as ‘magic and science’, ‘transmission of classical texts’, and ‘art history’. Guided by Warburg’s ideas about what makes a good neighbour for a book, this unique approach to classification allows a withered 17th-century medical tome to cluster next to texts on mathematics, the cosmos and harmony. The shelves promote intellectual serendipity as you skip from the book (or thought) you thought you wanted, to another intriguing idea or topic that hadn’t even occurred to you.
Art appreciation is held in high esteem in most cultures and societies. It is often portrayed as a laborious cognitive exercise, but this is to forget that the arts provide an opportunity for intense emotional experiences, positive mind-wandering and psychobiological self-regulation. Dürer perhaps captures the activity of such inactivity best of all. ‘If a man devotes himself to art,’ he wrote, ‘much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.’
Julia Christensen, Guido Giglioni & Manos Tsakiris
Every author is asked by new writers for advice. There is, however, no all-encompassing, single answer that also happens to be correct. Quite a lot of commonly offered suggestions (“write every day”) don’t work for everyone and must be approached with caution.
A few years ago, I set out to create a list that will benefit all new writers. I put ten commandments through the wringer of my peers, who suggested modifications and noted that this list applies not just to new writers but to writers at every stage of their career. Indeed, I’ve needed reminding of more than one myself.
Here, then, are the 10½ commandments of writing – with an extra one for free.
1. Read widely
To succeed as a writer, you must occasionally read. Yet there are wannabe-novelists who haven’t picked up a book in years. There are also, more tragically, writers too busy to engage with the end-product of our craft. If the only thing you’re reading is yourself you are bound to miss out on valuable lessons.
The same applies to reading only within a favourite genre. A varied diet will strengthen your literary muscles.
No need to thrash out 1,000 words a day or pen a perfect poem before breakfast, but you do have to write. The fundamental qualification for being a writer is putting words on the page.
If you aren’t doing that now, it’s possible you never will.
3. Follow your heart
When you really want to write literary fiction, but the market wants paranormal romance, write literary fiction. Chasing paranormal romance will be futile. Writing well is hard enough without cynicism getting in the way.
Passion doesn’t always pay, but it increases the odds of your work finding a home.
4. Be strategic
But the choice is never between just literary fiction and paranormal romance. You might have poetry and narrative non-fiction passion projects as well, and it’s possible narrative non-fiction will appeal to the widest audience. If a wider audience is what you want, narrative non-fiction is the one to choose.
If, however, you don’t give two hoots about your audience, write what you like.
There are lots of different kinds of writers and lots of different paths to becoming the writer you want to be.
5. Be brave
Writing is hard, intellectually and physically. It also takes emotional work, dealing with exposure, rejection, fear and impostor syndrome. It’s better you know this upfront, in order to fortify yourself.
These crises, however, are surmountable. We know this because there are writers out there, leading somewhat normal lives, even healthy and happy ones. You can too, if you don’t give up.
The ones who persist are the ones who prevail.
6. Be visible
Many writers would prefer they remain hidden in a dark cave for all eternity. But stories demand to be communicated, which means leaving that cave. Whether it’s you or your written word, or both, broaching the bubble of self-isolation is important.
This doesn’t mean assaulting every social platform and attending every festival and convention. Find the kind of engagement that suits you and embrace it, and don’t overdo it. Remember: you still have to write.
7. Be professional
Don’t lie. Don’t belittle your peers and don’t steal from them. Keep your promises. Communicate. Try to behave like someone people will want to work with – because we all have to do that, at some point.
Heed what people you’re working with are saying, because you never know what gems of knowledge you might glean – about craft, about the market, about something you’re working on – among the knowledge you (think you) already possess.
9. Don’t settle
Every story requires different skills. You’ll never, therefore, stop learning how to write. The day you think you’ve worked it out is the day the ground beneath you begins to erode, dropping you headlong into a metaphorical sinkhole – and nobody wants that. Least of all your readers.
Readers can tell when you’re getting lazy, just like they can tell when you’re faking. You’re one of them. Deep down, you’ll be the first to know.
10. Work hard
Put in the hours and you’re likely to get some return on your investment. How many hours, though?
There’s a wonderful saying: “Even a thief takes ten years to learn her trade.” Writing is no different to any other career. Hope for overnight success; plan for being like everyone else.
The bonus commandments
When I put this list to my friends, several raised the importance of finding your people. Although I agree this is an important principle, I would argue it is implicit in commandments 6-8: these have no meaning without engaging. I decided to encapsulate this as 10.5. Embrace community
After I’d been teaching and giving talks on this topic for several years, someone suggested another commandment that lies beneath the rest. It is so fundamental none will work unless you have this in spades. It is 0. Really want it, which sounds so obvious that it barely needs stating – except it does.
One day, I may no longer want to write. If that happens, I will take every mention of writing from this list and substitute the name of a new vocation – because this list applies to everything.
Let me rephrase that. I’m not talking BDSM, I’ll save that for another day. I’ve been submitting stories to various magazines. As part of this game – and it is a numbers game – there is the time-honoured tradition of every magazine having a slightly different requirement for one of the three standard manuscript formats. Which got me thinking about really sexy things, like kerning, justification, line spacing, indents, and whether my big capital I wears a hat or not. Reread that sentence with an erotic voice, and don’t you dare say bananas yet!
Now, I’m not an expert in formatting, layout, and graphic design. But since I have a blog on the internet, I’m apparently required to have an opinion on everything. Fortunately, I do actually have some experience with writing, editing, formatting, and laying out newsletters, ebooks, and webpages. Some of them even looked okay and used the correct theirthey’re there. I’ve even found myself in arguments defending the use of both serif and sans-serif fonts, which is like arguing over what colour black you want to wear to a metal concert (that’s a no-brainer: the darker one).
Anyway, there are plenty of anal-retentive science nerds like me who have gone and done research into what fonts work best for which applications. There are actually a surprising number of research studies on fonts and readability.
First, let’s define what is meant by serif and sans-serif fonts. (From Scribe Consulting) Consider the following characters. The first is set in Georgia, a lovely serif font. The second is set in Verdana, an easy-to-read sans-serif font.
Notice the small decorative flourishes at the ends of the strokes in the left character. These are called serif. The right character does not have these strokes and is said to be a sans-serif font. Sans is the French word for without. So I could be currently sans-pants. Or I might be serif-pants.
The most common examples of these two font types are Times New Roman (serif) and Arial (sans-serif). Bleeding Cowboys would be an example of an overused serif font that is for try-hards, whilst Comic Sans is an overused sans-serif that shows a lack of taste.
Now there are some simple rules of thumb when it comes to using serif and sans-serif fonts, which are backed up by science. The first rule is that thumbs only hit the space bar once. The second rule is:
This is because the serif makes the individual letters more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognise quickly. Without the serif, the brain has to spend longer identifying the letter because the shape is less distinctive.
The commonly used convention for printed work is to use a serif font for the body of the work. A sans-serif font is often used for headings, table text, captions, and ransom notes.
The third rule is:
Use sans-serif for online work
An important exception must be made for the web. Printed works generally have a resolution of at least 1,000 dots per inch; whereas, computer monitors are typically around 100 dots per inch. Even Apple’s much-vaunted retina display is only around 300 dots per inch — much lower than print.
This lower-resolution can make small serif characters harder to read than the equivalent sans-serif characters because of their more complex shapes. Yes, this does give you an excuse to buy a 4K monitor for your computer. Go nuts.
I’m just going to say it: I’m comfortable with the label of nerd.
More specifically, I’m a Nerdius scientifica.
Being a nerd is more accepted nowadays, what with our bulging brains and chiselled knowledge. And the reality is that us nerds have a lot to offer, like research skills.
Writing requires a lot of research and writers generally fall into two categories in this regard: those who need to learn how to research, and those who took up writing to justify those dodgy topics they’ve researched. This post will hopefully help the former. But if anyone does want to know how much slack rope you need to hang someone correctly from your homemade gallows, I have a spreadsheet calculator for you.
I stole am reblogging a post from Writer’s Digest with a few of my own comments.
Ernest Hemingway said writers should develop a built-in bullshit detector. I imagine one reason he said that is because readers have their own BS indicators. They can tell when we writers are winging it. We have to know well the worlds in which our characters act. Readers don’t have to believe the story really happened, but they need to believe it could have happened. So with that in mind, I offer a few thoughts on research for fiction.
I’d argue everyone should have a BS detector. [Insert topical political joke here] But the important point to note is that a writer can’t be an expert in all topics, yet readers are likely to come from a wide background. So if you haven’t done your research thoroughly, readers who are well versed in a field will notice, which can ruin the book for them.
1) You can’t do too much research. In the military, we often say time spent gathering intelligence is seldom wasted. The same concept applies in writing a novel. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity. In a college creative writing class, I wrote about how a scuba diver got cut underwater, and in the filtered light at depth, the blood appeared green. Though the professor didn’t think much of that particular story, he did concede he liked that detail. In fact, he said, “The author must have seen that.” And indeed, I had.
This point is both true and false.
Gee, thanks Tyson.
Okay, what I mean is that while you need to have done enough research to be able to include those little details that sell the story, at some point, you have to stop researching and write the damn thing. Maybe you want to be able to accurately describe what arterial spray looks like for your serial killer novel, but you can only research that for so long before you need to put down the knife and pick up your pen.
2) You can write what you know. We’ve all heard it before. Experience may be a cruel teacher, but it is a thorough one, and experience is the purest form of research. Things you’ve done in life can inform your writing in surprising ways, even if your characters aren’t doing those same things. When I watch the old Star Trek shows, I can tell the creator of those stories knew something about how a military flight crew works together. He understood the dynamics of a chain of command, how a commander learns the strengths and weaknesses of his team, how those team members communicate and work together. Turns out that Gene Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers in World War II. Roddenberry, of course, never flew a starship. But he knew from experience how the crew of a starship might interact.
Soooo, about that serial killer novel… Pure research. No experience. I promise.
Writing what you know is one of those bits of advice authors receive that you can honestly shrug your shoulders at. It’s not untrue. If you’ve been involved in something as a professional you will know it better than anyone trying to research it. But it can also be severely limiting.
Take the example used. If Star Trek understands how military flight crews operated, why did it insist on sending the most important crew members on the dangerous away missions? Aside from the chance to shag the aliens, obviously.
I think the more helpful advice is seeking help from people who know. Go to forums, discussion groups, ask friends, put out the call on social media, cultivate contacts. The internet makes us closer than ever to experts, why limit yourself to what you’ve done?
3) You can do research on the cheap. If you can’t visit an exotic location, you can pick up the phone and ask questions. The worst that can happen is somebody thinks you’re crazy and they hang up. Then you just call somebody else. (Believe me; I used to be a reporter, and I’ve learned a lot by asking questions.) You can visit a museum, or a museum’s website. Develop an eye for small details.
While you CAN do research on the cheap you COULD still use your writing as an excuse for that holiday to an exotic location.* For your art. And tax write-offs.
The internet is the cheapest and best research tool ever invented. Things like Google Street View, location webpages, travel blogs, and that person you went to high school with who fancies themselves as an Influencer’s Instagram feed, all offer information from your desk. No travel required. The same applies to any other aspect of research.
But be careful. Your Influencer friend might be distorting the truth for clicks. That travel blog may have been paid content from a tourism company. And Google Street View may be tracking your data to target you with ads.** Lateral reading and critical research are key.
4) You can find anything on YouTube. Seriously. But you have to know your topic well enough to know how to search for it. In The Renegades, I have a character whose lungs collapse from a bullet wound. I wanted to find out how a medic would treat that condition. Sure enough, someone had posted on YouTube a video with detailed instructions on how to perform a needle decompression.
You can find anything on YouTube. If you want to know about how the Earth is actually hollow and filled with shape-shifting lizards who have roles in every government and are most celebrities, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how vaccines are a secret government conspiracy by the lizard people to depopulate the planet and make the survivors docile sheep ready for the coming invasion, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how white people are being replaced as part of a globalist agenda and the only way to stop it is by becoming a Nazi, then YouTube has you covered.***
Again, lateral reading and critical research are key.
5) You can find things anywhere. You’re a writer, so keep pen and paper within reach during all waking hours. You might get an idea from a news story on television, a song on the radio, or a Tweet from a friend. About a year ago, I was driving along on a warm day, listening to the radio with the windows down. An oldies station played “Wind of Change,” the Scorpions’ 1990 ballad hailing the end of the Cold War. I hadn’t heard that song in a long time, and I cranked it up loud. The power chords brought back memories of flying relief missions to Bosnia while based at a disused Cold War alert facility in Germany. Not really a pleasant memory–for Bosnia, the end of the Cold War brought something worse. But that flashback from early in my military career inspired a scene in the novel I’m working on now.
While I agree with this point, I think people get carried away with always having a pen and paper handy. A lot of the ideas you end up writing down are rubbish. The flight of fancy comes and goes. The things you write down should be the sticky things. That thing you wanted to look up, you’ll remember it if it was actually important.
6) You can use all of your senses. Find out what things taste like, smell like, feel like. Say, for example, you set your novel in Warsaw. Maybe you can’t afford to go to Warsaw, but you can go to a Polish restaurant. (See item number three above, about doing research on the cheap.) As you write one of your scenes, include a line about the texture and flavor of something your character eats. You’ve just made your writing more alive and authentic.
This is good advice, particularly with internet research. It is easy to look up photos of a location. Harder to look up what it smells like, or if the road is uneven underfoot, or if arterial blood feels warm on your skin. We’ve got roughly 20 senses, so your research (and writing descriptions) should reflect that.
7) You can leave some things out. If you do thorough research, you’ll find more material than you need, and no reader likes a data dump. In my own writing, I could bore you to death with the details of aircraft and weapons. But a very good creative writing professor once advised me to let the reader “overhear” the tech talk. Say, if my character punches off a HARM missile, that might sound authentic and pretty scary. But scary would turn to dull if I stopped the action to tell you that HARM stands for High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, which homes in on anti-aircraft missile radars. Who cares? The damn thing goes boom.
This is the most important point about research, even in science. Most of it doesn’t end up on the page. Nobody cares about the lab experiments that failed, they want to know about the results from the one that worked. Nobody wants to read your detailed and accurate Linux commands the hacker types in, sudo leave that stuff out.
I think the point of research is to better understand the universe we live in. For a writer, research will help to create more believable universes for their stories. It isn’t easy to tell the difference between good and bad information. It isn’t easy to know when to stop. And it is hardest of all to not brag about how big your research is.
* Ever notice that novels by successful authors are never set in boring locations? The characters are never having the exciting chase scene through the streets of Canberra, Adelaide, or Perth Australia, they are in Paris, or New York, or London. Funny how those places are regarded as top destinations for travel.
** Maybe? Try definitely. I said may because you can run tracking and ad blockers and deny cookies. Good advice to stop some… interesting ads coming your way.
*** I’m not even covering the worst and most obviously wrong conspiracies with these examples. Not even close. Two of those three examples are getting people killed.
Do people not get inspired to write? Are there people out there who wander around all day with no ideas, daydreams, random thoughts, or little voices whispering in their ears? Do they have those little ideas and then shrug their shoulders, deciding they aren’t worth writing down? Does the little voice whisper and people don’t think to document it for a potential future criminal defence case?
Maybe I’m just not understanding the question.
It was only last year that I was disabused of my hatred for the question “Where do you get your ideas?” Obviously, I buy them in bulk from Ideas ‘R’ Us in the Creative Mall in the Artist District. They aren’t cheap, but it’s where Dan Brown shops for his, so have to be good quality.
My friend and author Kaaron Warren did a seminar on where her ideas came from. It was a lightbulb moment for me. People weren’t asking where the ideas come from, they were asking what was inspiring the ideas in the book. How were those ideas being linked together and turned into a story? Essentially, walking the (potential) audience through being creative.
So maybe this question is more about the process of noticing something in your day to day life and how you reckon it could be improved with the addition of dragons – let’s be honest, everything could be improved with dragons… and ninjas. Now you’re thinking about how much fun it would be for your protagonist to ride a dragon over a city and genocidally burn it to the ground because you’re annoyed at… hang on, that’s terrible. What sort of hack would come up with that scene? Scrap that rubbish. I’ll wait for the next idea.
Maybe ninjas. Monkey ninjas. With wings. Who whispers in your ear, telling you to blow up the houses of parliament. Honest, your honour, it was the ninja monkeys who told me to do it. Right before they flew away.
NB: This post was originally written as part of a short story submission. Instead of a cover letter, they wanted a blog post answering one of the common author questions.
Recently on Twitter I was discussing writing in noisy environments with fellow writers. Jennifer mentioned she had managed to finish a draft whilst sitting in a particularly noisy cafe. You would think this would be the most distracting place to try and be creative in.
I’ve noticed that there is a certain amount of noise needed or not needed. Too much noise and it’s annoying, too little noise and it is distracting, and urgent noise like a truck reversing siren gets your heart pumping too much. That’s why I’ve been successfully able to work in cafes, airports, and buses, but have found libraries and open-plan offices too distracting.
It appears that there is some science to this sweet spot.
The research suggests that most people reach peak creative performance at approximately 70dB. This is about the noise of a person talking on their phone on the train, or how loud your neighbours are during sex after you’ve just broken up with your partner. The reasoning as to why this level of noise isn’t distracting isn’t fully understood. But the authors reckon that:
We theorize that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise is likely to induce processing disfluency or processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing, thus impairing creativity.
In other words, if you need to have a high level of focus for something requiring accuracy, detail, and/or linear reasoning, then silence can help make that happen. But it can be a distraction if you need to let your mind wander in that creative zone. Maybe you want to make several careful and precise cuts to a piece of leather as you make a woman suit, that requires quiet and not the distracting sounds of a small dog, so you lock the dog in your basement. However, if you wanted to write a compelling serial killer novel, you probably need a bit of noise to help you think.
Okay, put on some tunes and creative masterpiece here I come?
Why would a cafe level noise be conducive to concentrating but the co-workers in the next cubicle who are discussing how busy they are just makes you want to throw a stapler? Because it is about the sort of noise. It needs to be a constant background noise such that any one sound is mashed up with any other sound into a meaningless wall of sound. This means that music doesn’t really fit the bill and can be a distraction for creativity.* If you’re hearing lyrics or a cool riff, you’re trying to pick out the words or instrument and losing focus on what you’re meant to be… SQUIRREL! Better to have quiet library noise conditions.
But before you rush out and buy yourself a white noise generator or invite your child’s classmates over for a playdate, it is worth noting that this is pretty preliminary research. The study itself only used 65 participants. I’d want a lot of repeat experiments finding the same results before drawing any strong conclusions. It’s also worth noting that while there appears to be notable research on creativity (e.g. another paper from the same researcher), this aspect hasn’t been investigated further.
So while this research appears to confirm the anecdata of myself and other writers on Twitter, it’s hardly settled science.**
* Although, many would argue that music can help creativity. I personally find it distracting. If I like the music, I’ll be listening to it and not focused. [Insert EDM or Pop joke here that doesn’t make me sound too old]. I’ve previously discussed a study showing music hurts your ability to be creative.
Scams are nothing new and at this stage neither is the internet. Whether it be someone offering to enlarge your penis – in the porn sense, the dating sense, the dysfunction sense, or the extra inch sense – or someone encouraging you to hate an out-group, the internet appears to be filled with scammers.
It was only this morning I received a very convincing looking invoice for a large order of books from a publisher I have been known to buy books from. Fortunately, I know some people in high places, like my friend the Nigerian prince, and they were able to warn me that I hadn’t actually ordered any books this week and should probably not click on the link to pay for them. Targeting readers and writers with scams are where I have to draw the metaphorical line in the metaphorical sand.
Most writers are hobbyists, writing because they love it. The handful that do get paid enough to be full-time writers are few and far between. So targeting writers with scams means that somewhere a monkey at a keyboard is not being fed today.
Let’s dissect a writing scam to see if we can spot the tricks used to part you from your potentially hard-earned money. This article was for a New, Amazing, Adjective, program that promises to give you the tools to write a 400-word article in 7 minutes. My comments are in blue.
Dear Fellow Article Writer
TA: This is a strong start. It creates kinship from a cold open. It wouldn’t read as well if they just called you a mark or sucker. Unless your name happens to be Mark. Or Sucker. But why would anyone call their child that? I mean, no offense to any Marks, but it’s a terrible name.
Did you watch the video above? It’s hard to believe so many people would send me such raving, unsolicited testimonials about my product, “How to Write an Article in 7 Minutes or Less“.
TA: I haven’t included the video but it is amazing how many unsolicited video testimonials appear to be shot with professional lighting and cameras.
If you did watch the video, you saw with your own eyes how I was able to take people who spent more than an hour writing an article down to as fast as 5 minutes per article!
TA: 5 minutes? I thought you said 7 minutes. Does this mean I get a 2 minute abs program as a bonus?
Would you like to experience the same results, without risking a penny? If so, then let me extend to you this unusual guarantee:
If you don’t cut your current article writing time down by at least 65% in less than a week after trying my methods, then not only will I refund every single cent of your purchase…
I’ll Give You DOUBLE Your Money Back!
TA: Cool, cool, cool, cool. But what if my average article writing time is 30 minutes and you only manage to bring it down by 65% to 10 minutes? Do I get 65% of my money back?
All you have to do is show me three articles you’ve written using my simple “7 minute formula” and tell me honestly that it didn’t at least increase your article writing speed by 65% while still maintaining the same quality and…
I will give you double your money back.
TA: This, folks, is called a caveat.
Also, if for any reason at all you are unsatisfied, you can always ask me for a refund — no matter what — and I’ll promptly and quietly return every penny you paid in full.
TA: Is anyone else’s cynicsense tingling?
Either way you can’t lose.
How I Stumbled Upon the
Secret for Writing Articles Quickly!
Not too long ago I earned my keep ghostwriting for internet marketers.
If you read articles, forum posts or follow the “gurus” in anyway, chances are you’ve read something ghostwritten by me.
I have written thousands of articles for my clients, and along the way discovered a simple process for generating content quickly for almost any topic.
TA: Notice that this pitch pretty much precludes any allusions to quality writing.
Here’s how it works.
Open my 3 special research sites. TA: Wikipedia?
Use my “skim and grab” research technique to find your
3 main points (Takes about a minute). TA: Yes, because reading comprehension is for suckers.
Outline each main point with two “sub points.” (another minute here). TA: What if there is only one point?
Use the “opening paragraph” template to quickly create the first paragraph (About 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph, got it.
Use the “main point” template to write paragraphs for each of your three main points. (2-4 minutes total time) TA: So, standard writing….
Use the “conclusion paragraph” template to quickly create the conclusion. (another 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph at the end.
Proof read your article, and then submit it to the appropriate directory. (1-2 minutes) TA: Click spellcheck and hope it doesn’t miss anything.
The cool thing about using these templates is you never have to pause to think…but… you also enough leeway so each article remains 100% unique, and of the highest quality.
TA: Yes, why would you want to actually put any thought into your writing. Highly overrated for quality content. This approach screams quality writing.
Don’t worry: My method has nothing to do with plagiarism!
TA: Of course not, copy and pasting clearly takes too long.
Anyway, you can learn all about my 7 minute article technique by reading my special report, “How to Write an Article In 7 Minutes”, and by watching the videos I made showing step by step how I do it.
But that’s not all… TA: Steak knives? Please be steak knives.
My first thought upon seeing the claim that you could learn to write an article in 7 minutes was that it was bullshit. The fact that people would find this plausible left me a little stunned, a little thirsty, and thinking about having a nap. Clearly, some people are going to be taken in by these kinds of scams. So I want to just illustrate my critical thinking process and how I avoided being scammed for $37 (I know, huge amounts of money).
Drawing from personal experience, I know that I’d spend more than 7 minutes just copying in the links to the research I’d be citing, let alone reading the 3 magic research sites. So the first check is to understand just how long certain tasks actually take you. This scam works on the idea that you don’t really measure the time it takes for common activities. You may know how long you spend on a full article or day’s writing, but not on the little parts, like one paragraph or one sentence. So when someone presents you with some figures, you are bound to think, “Well, I do spend a lot of time staring at the screen and checking my Twitter feed.” Suddenly you are partly receptive to the con.
Let’s have a look how long writing actually takes the average person. Being a science nerd, I like to have a few figures around on writing, reading, average number of Facebook posts per hour; you know, important stats. The average person has a typing speed of 60-100 words per minute, which gives you 400-700 words written in 7 minutes. The page claims a 400-word article with 5 minutes of actual writing time. So the claim is physically possible. Just. But that is typing speed, not writing speed. Typing is just mashing a bunch of keys in the correct order, writing requires a little more thought as to what those mashed keys actually communicate.
What about editing? Nothing is perfect on a first draft, nothing! So even if this is a 400-word article written in 5 minutes, you still need to edit. Reading speed is not the same as proofreading speed, with average speeds of 180-200 words per minute. That’s another 2-3 minutes.
Aaannnddd, we’re out of time. Sorry, folks.
Just the physical act of writing and reading your new article chews up the time allocation. Unless this program comes with a Deloren or Time Turner it is unlikely to have you churning out 8 articles an hour.
But what if the program can reduce my writing time by 65%, I hear a brave new bridge owner chewing on brain pills ask.
Well then, send me $40 and I’ll send you some templates that I guarantee will improve your writing by 69%, add inches to your IQ, and make Nigerian royalty give you money. Trust me, no-one lies on the internet.
I’ve written before about plots and how there aren’t as many of them as you’d think – somewhere between 1 and 36 depending upon how you want to break them down. Often writers utilise some of the well-known plot structures, such as The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat or The Plot Hole.
Some 70 years after Kurt Vonnegut proposed the idea of mapping story shapes for a rejected Masters thesis, some researchers decided it was time to crunch some data. They analysed 1,737 fiction novels to figure out how the story arcs are constructed. Let’s pretend there is a big difference between a plot anda story arc…
The study used Project Gutenberg – i.e. public domain works – and the results suggest that there are only really six story arcs:
Fall-rise-fall: ‘Oedipus Rex’, ‘The Wonder Book of Bible Stories’, ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and ‘The Serpent River’.
Rise-fall: ‘Stories from Hans Andersen’, ‘The Rome Express’, ‘How to Read Human Nature’ and ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’.
Fall-rise: ‘The Magic of Oz’, ‘Teddy Bears’, ‘The Autobiography of St. Ignatius’ and ‘Typhoon’.
Steady fall: ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The House of the Vampire’, ‘Savrola’ and ‘The Dance’.
Steady rise: ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’, ‘Dream’, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and ‘The Human Comedy’.
Rise-fall-rise: ‘Cinderella’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Sophist’ and ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’.
The most popular stories have been found to follow the ‘fall-rise-fall’ and ‘rise-fall’ arcs.
Or for those that prefer to read graphs because it makes them feel intellectual:
For those that just saw a bunch of squiggles in those graphs, what you are looking at is the story arc plotted over time for each story analysed. They’ve broken these into similar groups then added an average (the orange line). You can see how some of the story arcs follow the average more, whilst some types vary more. To see an individual story arc, they picked out Harry Potter as an example in the paper, but have the rest archived here (Project Gutenberg books) and here (a selection of classic and popular novels). As they note:
The entire seven book series can be classified as a “Rags to riches” and “Kill the monster” story, while the many sub plots and connections between them complicate the emotional arc of each individual book. The emotional arc shown here, captures the major highs and lows of the story, and should be familiar to any reader well acquainted with Harry Potter. Our method does not pick up emotional moments discussed briefly, perhaps in one paragraph or sentence (e.g., the first kiss of Harry and Ginny).
It is interesting to see how close Vonnegut’s proposed shapes aligns with the research.
The above is from graphic designer Maya Eilam and can be viewed at her website.
Here is Vonnegut explaining the story shapes:
This is all nice and good, but why is this interesting? Well, aside from the study using my favourite statistical technique – principal components analysis – it shows that authors create, and the audience expects, structures that are familiar. The fact that two of the story arcs (rise-fall and fall-rise-fall) are the most common emphasises this point. Our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories, forming patterns that are meaningful and familiar to us. There is scope to play within the formula, but ultimately we desire stories that fit conventions.
When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.
It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.
So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?
How should I know? I don’t watch the show.
What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.
At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.
Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.
Update: This post wouldn’t be complete without Lindsay Ellis’ take on things. She raises several points that the other videos don’t, especially the “Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy” – or more accurately “Hot Fantasy That F**KS” – aspects of the series.
I’ve never understood authors, directors, or other creatives who have a problem with fan fiction (and other derivatives). What is wrong with fans showing their love for something you’ve created by creating something of their own? Sure, it won’t be canon, and they might not get the feel of your work right, but does it really matter?
With that, I give you a fan fiction short from Rocket Jump.*
*Yes, this post is just an excuse to share the above video, even if it is only for the Firefly reference.
Every now and then I masochistically log onto Twitter to see what passes for civil discourse amongst the people trying to sell you stuff and those not quite racist enough to be booted to Gab. When I recently logged on, a couple of the authors I follow were updating their fans with their novel progress, or what was currently distracting them from writing.
What interested me about these updates was that several authors were talking about having to trim their draft by 50-65%. That’s right, authors who needed to hand in a 100,000 word manuscript to their publisher were having to trim 100-200,000 words from their novel.
Word limits are a funny thing. I’ve never had a problem being succinct, to the point that my editing usually involves added 15-20%. Yet these successful authors* are having to sit down with their editors to cull half their manuscript. And if we’re being honest, some successful authors** should have culled a lot more and saved their readers all that page skipping.
One of the good things that Twitter trains you to do, aside from teaching you that trolling people is perfectly okay, is how to express yourself succinctly in 140 280 characters. It forces you to practice creating a thought or sentence in a manner that may be foreign. For example, the complex phrase:
I disagree with your supposition as it is currently unsupported by any evidence, either presented by yourself or in the scientific literature, thus there is no reason for me to support your statements. I would also question how rational your supposition is, because despite the lack of evidence, there is no reason to suspect that there is any industry conspiracy trying to deny Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson an Oscar for Best Actor.
Can be replaced with:
This says everything that is needed and doesn’t dance around the topic. Conversely, the reply to this can be shortened from:
Whilst you are allowed to disagree with me, my opinion still stands. I cannot provide a summary of the relevant scientific literature at this time, but this is information that is readily understood and referenced in the literature. Thus I will endevour to provide a few examples when I am able to, but in the meantime I’d invite you to read further on the topic, as I suspect that you will agree with me once you have. I will admit, however, that the literature on this topic is currently inaccessible due to paywall restrictions, thus this unsourced blog post will have to suffice until such time as the academic publishing model is reformed.
Can be replaced with:
Well screw you and the horse you road up on.
The trick is to start with what your key points are and not overuse exposition to explain those points. The 140 280 character limit can help with this a lot.
In the meantime, if you aren’t a fan of See Mike Draw, I suggest you become one now.
* Maybe that is why they are successful authors and I’m still in thatemerging authorcategory. Perhaps it is time to write double the amount I need.
I would posit that there are two things that are important to an author when writing with regards to the genre:
That the author enjoys the genre they are writing in;
That the genre suits the story they are writing.
I’d also argue that the first point is far more important than the second. I say this mainly because I want to provide a very superficial argument on the second point.
In a panel discussion entitled Bestsellers and Blockbusters on ABC TV’s Book Club, thriller author Matthew Reilly made mention of some literary authors who had been tempted to try writing thrillers – because money. Always about those big juicy bucks. Those authors didn’t really like the thriller genre and as a result, they didn’t understand how to write them and thus failed to write entertaining thrillers.
I have previously discussed one example of what Matthew raised in the above video. In 2014, the literary award-winning author Isabel Allende decided to dabble in crime fiction with Ripper. No, seriously, that was the title. Allende didn’t enjoy the experience. She was quoted as saying she hates crime fiction because:
It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people.
Allende went further to say that Ripper was a joke and ironic. The response to this was for crime genre fans to condemn her, bookstore Murder by the Book sent their orders back, and Goodreads ratings suggest it is one of her worst received books. Maybe next time she will not make those comments whilst on the promotional tour. Or, you know, not write something she doesn’t enjoy. One of the two.
Authors obviously have to invest a lot of time and energy in creating a novel. If they aren’t enjoying the experience, then that is likely to spill over into the quality of the end creation. So they are likely to invest time and energy in doing something they enjoy so that readers will enjoy it. Or try to grin and bear it as they go after some big juicy bucks.
The second point that authors consider is what genre suits the story they are trying to tell.* Genre can help define and shape the story. So the genre often acts as the stage or setting for the story. Think of science fiction and themes of social protest, or fantasy exploring social constructs, or horror exploring ways to dismember work colleagues. Obviously, some genres will be more suitable for telling certain stories.** As a result, the genre will be an important consideration in the writing process.
In summary, an author is likely to write in a genre they enjoy and utilise the genre that helps tell their story. To my mind, this is how an author thinks about the genre.