THE GHOSTWRITER’S LAMENT

This morning I read the article “Trump’s Boswell Speaks” by Jane Mayer in the July 25, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. I’m not in the slightest fraction a Donald Trump supporter, but something about the story of Trump’s The Art of the Deal co-author . . . or is it ghostwriter, or is it PR copywriter . . . Tony Schwartz coming forward to throw Trump under the bus left me somehow unsettled.

I’ve done some ghostwriting myself and I’m happy to report that none of the books I’ve worked on in that capacity could ever be seen as assisting a dangerously unstable demagogue in his quest for power. I’m equally happy to report that when I have functioned as a proper ghostwriter, which is to say, an uncredited writer of someone else’s ideas, I have never “outed” anyone, much less fired off public attacks.

This all gives me a really icky feeling. Since Donald Trump is so overwhelmingly horrible I’d never want to be seen as in any way supporting him, or even feeling the least but sorry for him, I need to think about this whole ghostwriting thing from the perspective of professional ethics.

A bit of background from that New Yorker article:

Schwartz had ghostwritten Trump’s 1987 breakthrough memoir, earning a joint byline on the cover, half of the book’s five-hundred-thousand-dollar advance, and half of the royalties. The book was a phenomenal success, spending forty-eight weeks on the Times best-seller list, thirteen of them at No. 1. More than a million copies have been bought, generating several million dollars in royalties. The book expanded Trump’s renown far beyond New York City, making him an emblem of the successful tycoon. Edward Kosner, the former editor and publisher of New York, where Schwartz worked as a writer at the time, says, “Tony created Trump. He’s Dr. Frankenstein.”

For what it’s worth I’ve never been offered anything like that money, but it’s fair that we keep that payday in mind as we proceed.

The first question we have to answer in terms of ghostwriting in general: Why hire a ghostwriter at all, or why do ghostwriters even exist, is, I think, clearly answered in the freelancewriting.com post “Why Ghost Writing is Ethical”:

Not every company CEO got to where he or she is because of writing skills. Often that position was earned through people skill, business sense and financial skills. When someone like this turns to a ghostwriter, they should not be labeled unethical.

If you were to tell me that Donald Trump had neither the ability nor the time to write a book, I’m perfectly willing to believe you, and in 1987 I might even have agreed that he had something of value to say about business negotiations, the commercial real estate business, and so on.

Okay, so a publisher hired Tony Schwartz to do the writing, and Donald Trump to do the thinking.

Fair enough.

Richard L. Johannesen’s “Ethical Guidelines for Ghostwriting” really brings into suspicion the ethics behind the person who hires the ghostwriter, much more than the ethical responsibilities of the ghostwriter himself:

If we assume, as most do, that presidential speeches are ghostwritten, then the only unethical act would be for the President to claim to author his own speeches.

Did Donald Trump do that? Claim to author this book?

From The New Yorker:

In my phone interview with Trump, he initially said of Schwartz, “Tony was very good. He was the co-author.” But he dismissed Schwartz’s account of the writing process. “He didn’t write the book,” Trump told me. “I wrote the book. I wrote the book. It was my book. And it was a No. 1 best-seller, and one of the best-selling business books of all time. Some say it was the best-selling business book ever.” (It is not.) Howard Kaminsky, the former Random House head, laughed and said, “Trump didn’t write a postcard for us!”

This is tough, since we’re dealing with someone as nuts as Donald Trump. He said here that Tony Schwartz was the co-author but then said he wrote the book, not Schwartz. In case you needed another example of Donald Trump’s situational ethics.

Johannesen continued:

Obviously, the more input a communicator has in his or her own writing, the more ethical will be the resultant image. We really don’t expect the President to write his own speeches, but we do expect that the sentiments expressed in them will be his own.

And back to the freelancewriting.com post “Why Ghost Writing is Ethical”:

The real question of ethics lies in whether the message being transmitted by the ghostwriter is authentic. Does it accurately reflect the message the non-writer wants to transmit through the ghostwriter? Then the basic requirement to remaining ethical has not been violated.

This says it was perfectly ethical for Schwartz to write The Art of the Deal, and the final product is without ethical question in that Trump approved the text, clearly gleefully signed on to the content, tirelessly promoted the book as his own—the message within, at least, even if the precise language was Schwartz’s and even, honestly, if some of the ideas were Schwartz’s. As long as Trump, like anyone who employs a speechwriter or publicist—in the language of political TV commercials—“approves this message” then neither Trump nor Schwartz has done anything particularly wrong.

Johannesen once again:

Does the communicator accept responsibility for the message he or she presents? When former president Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, disclosed in his book that many of the quotes attributed to the president were, in fact, either made up or “borrowed” from someone else, he caused quite an ethical uproar. Part of the problem with the Larry Speakes revelation was that the President denied the accusations. In other words, he claimed he never approved Speakes’ work. Most communicators simply assume that whatever they say or whatever they sign their names to is theirs, whether written by someone else or not. This is obviously the most ethical position to take.

Read at your own risk.

Read at your own risk.

Then from the New Yorker article:

It took Schwartz a little more than a year to write “The Art of the Deal.” In the spring of 1987, he sent the manuscript to Trump, who returned it to him shortly afterward. There were a few red marks made with a fat-tipped Magic Marker, most of which deleted criticisms that Trump had made of powerful individuals he no longer wanted to offend, such as Lee Iacocca. Otherwise, Schwartz says, Trump changed almost nothing.

“Ghostwriter” Tony Schwartz is clearly identified on the cover of the book, and as an author on the book’s Amazon landing page. To my mind, that would make him a co-author, a collaborator, and not a ghostwriter. But where that term “ghostwriter” seems to be applicable to Schwartz is in the revelation that he actually wrote all of the book, with little if any input from Trump himself.

Schwartz went to his room, called his literary agent, Kathy Robbins, and told her that he couldn’t do the book. (Robbins confirms this.) As Schwartz headed back to New York, though, he came up with another plan. He would propose eavesdropping on Trump’s life by following him around on the job and, more important, by listening in on his office phone calls. That way, extracting extended reflections from Trump would not be required. When Schwartz presented the idea to Trump, he loved it.

That last from the New Yorker article. So the fundamental “lie” at the heart of the book was actually Schwartz’s idea, approved by his lazy, disinterested subject.

Should you have the unfortunate feeling that any memoir or autobiography is the pure, complete, and unadulterated truth, please allow me to disabuse you of that notion now and forevermore. Of course, there are more honest books than this one, books much more revealing or heartfelt, but the people who bought this book bought it for advice on how to manipulate the business world for their own gain, and they got that. And it was signed by both authors, both of whom got paid.

Trying to walk that back almost thirty years later is more ethically suspect, frankly, than having written it in the first place. Tony Schwartz agreed to write the book, Tony Schwartz got paid, and when Trump revealed himself a fraud Tony Schwartz passed through his moment of doubt and pain and constructed a way to keep working. And then, again from the New Yorker article:

. . . Trump approached Schwartz about writing a sequel, for which Trump had been offered a seven-figure advance. This time, however, he offered Schwartz only a third of the profits. He pointed out that, because the advance was much bigger, the payout would be, too. But Schwartz said no. Feeling deeply alienated, he instead wrote a book called “What Really Matters,” about the search for meaning in life. After working with Trump, Schwartz writes, he felt a “gnawing emptiness” and became a “seeker,” longing to “be connected to something timeless and essential, more real.

If, since 1987, Tony Schwartz has rededicated himself to better people and better causes, and used his ill-gotten gains to do good works, I applaud that, but if there’s a Ghostwriter’s Code I think he broke it, and that sucks.

Even if it further embarrasses a truly dangerous man.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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PROGRESS IS POSSIBLE

I don’t necessarily like to go back and revisit things, but today I thought I’d take a look back at four previous Fantasy Author’s Handbook posts and see if I’ve managed to take my own advice, correct my own shortcomings, or keep my own promises.

That isn’t always easy to do, but I’ve never been a big fan of “do what I say, not what I do”-style advice, so in the same spirit of actually trying my own writing exercises, let’s see how I’ve done on four points, working my way back from the most recent.

On July 5, only six weeks ago, I wrote about . . .

MY 3.85-HOUR WORK DAY

In that post I bemoaned my own lack of progress on a couple projects and also did some research on the origin of the eight-hour work day and how many hours real people actually work. At the end of that post, I set myself the goal of increasing my work day from that less-than-four-hour low to six hours.

So how did I do?

It bears repeating that this is time spent actively working, not including lunch, errands, talking on the phone with friends, taking the dog out for a walk, yelling at my kids to take the dog out for a walk, and all the other things that intrude on the work hours of someone who works from home in the same way that meetings, “water cooler chat,” the day’s commute, and other distractions and time-wasters intrude on an office worker’s day.

Since I post these on Tuesday and wanted to make an immediate change after July 5, I added up my weekly hours as though a work week ran Wednesday-Tuesday. In the full five weeks of this modified work week since that initial post I’ve averaged out to 4.75 hours per day, an average increase of .9 hours per day. So, haven’t quite made it to six hours, but I’m headed in the right direction. And more importantly, running behind on nothing.

This shows that by gathering data, thinking about it, comparing it to the experiences of others, it is possible even for a middle-aged gentleman like myself to change his evil, or at least slovenly ways. Looking at this week’s to do list, if I keep my eyes on that prize, I’ll be getting to six hour work days starting . . . yikes . . . today!

On April 5 I blamed myself for a series of . . .

TRAGIC WRITING INJURIES

The back pain only got worse, and after a solid year went by since the first jolt of breath-stopping pain turned into lingering chronic agony, I finally had to try another doctor—anything to figure out what the hell this was, especially with some other really scary symptoms including numbness in my arms and legs suddenly showing up.

Finally, finally, got a doctor to look at me for more than a few seconds, take blood and x-rays, and . . . drum roll please . . .

Osteoarthritis of the thoracic spine!

We have a winner.

What causes this? I suppose my crooked posture photographed in that post might not help but it’s looking like I’m just too God damned fat. I’m tall, at about 6’3”, but 360 pounds is just way, way too many pounds.

Don’t believe me? Try this:

Get a hundred pounds of sand and strap it to the front of your abdomen. Carry that around everywhere, always. Sleep with it. Wake up with it. Go to bed with it.

Yeah.

Treatment?

Stop being so fat.

I’m now into week three of no processed sugar, very little if any fat, very much less meat, and regular aerobic exercise every week day including stretching exercises and Wudang Five Animals Qi Gong. I already have more almost pain-free days, and will get back to the doctor in the next couple weeks to see if there’s something else I can be doing.

I’ve lost weight before and if you’ve never had to attempt it, you have no idea how hard it is. I use food as an anti-depressant and it can be just as hard to kick as any drug. But strangely, I’ve found that I have no sugar cravings at all, don’t miss the afternoon salty snack, and can walk away from the third serving at dinner—even seconds!—without the withdrawals. I think I managed to get my body to such a damaged state that my brain actually recognized that it’s more painful to be this fat than it is to go without ice cream. Fingers crossed, we can get this thing beat in a year.

I NEED TO READ NEWER BOOKS

. . . was a promise I made on January 12 when I realized that most of the books I was reading at any given time were older than me, and I’m pretty old.

I started off by adding the recent Elvis Costello autobiography to my “currently reading” shelf and . . . just finished reading it last night.

What?

It’s a pretty long book, but really? Eight months?

I blame the New Yorker, which just keeps coming.

Every week.

Week after week.

My non-New Yorker reading really dropped off the first half of this year.

But thanks in large part to spending half an hour on the exercise bike every day, I’ve started reading more in general, so let’s see if I’ve managed to read more newer books . . .

My current books are:

Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 2. Marvel comic book reprints from the late 60s. Not new.

Black Legion of Callisto by Lin Carter. Early 70s sword and planet series. Pretty much the same age as the good doctor.

A book from 2015!

A book from 2015!

Space Wolf by William King. A Warhammer 40,000 novel from—hey, not that long ago: 1999. That’s only a year older than my son. I think I said I wanted to read books that were less than eighteen months old but what the hell, it came from my random science fiction grab bag box, and I’m diggin’ it, so, whatever.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, mostly from the 80s. Raymond Carver is a national treasure, so . . .

And replacing Elvis Costello for my current non-fiction read: The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow from 2015! Hey!

So, yeah, at least there’s nothing from before the time of Christ.

Baby steps.

But my favorite of all . . .

RANDOM BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION PROMPTS FOR WRITERS

This one I’ve fully embraced right from the get-go.

I love this.

You really need to do this.

One thing I’ve added to it is to mix up the prompts more. Some didn’t really help me, and I had a couple other ideas, but just today my Calendar told me to strike the superhero pose and I did, and it always makes me feel better.

This month includes prompts like “fix something that’s broken,” “Read Dr. Strange,” and “Tweet about someone else’s book” that just stops me, gets me doing something else, clears my brain, maybe gets me moving, and otherwise not just wallow in the to do list.

You might not have a hundred pounds to lose, you might already be reading new books or don’t agree that new books have anything to offer, and might not be entirely in control of your work hours, but if nothing else, try this.

I’ve come to look forward to those little reminders and try not to look ahead at them so I can be surprised.

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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THE DIFFERENCE (IF ANY) BETWEEN AN AUTHOR AND A WRITER

I’m happy to admit that over the course of my own career, in reference to both myself and others, I’ve used the words “writer” and “author” entirely interchangeably. In my mind they have always been synonyms.

But lately I’ve started noticing a building argument out there as to the difference between being a writer and being an author. This came to the fore again as I read Dean Wesley Smith’s Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing (see my thoughts on the book here) in which Smith takes a strong stand on the issue:

My definition of a writer is a person who writes.

My definition of an author is a person who has written.

Yeah, I agree, sort of a nasty distinction. I have no respect for authors. I have a ton of respect for writers.

He goes on to say:

In this modern world of indie publishing, we see a ton of authors out there pushing their one or two or three books, promoting them to death, annoying their two hundred Twitter followers and their family on Facebook.

Promotion is not writing., That’s just being an author.

Writers are people who write.

But then I have to ask: aren’t people who promote promoters? Marketers? Salespeople? And indie authors have to fill those roles that traditionally-published authors can (at least in part) rely on their publishers to provide. This angry distinction comes off as more than a bit hypocritical, frankly, from Dean Wesley-Smith who has quite an active indie publishing enterprise of his own, which he, one could say, promotes to death.

This isn’t getting us anywhere.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the difference between art and craft. So is it as easy as:

author = artist, writer = craftsman?

This tends to make the title of “author” feel like something to achieve, to strive for. Self-proclaimed author Jami Gold in her blog post “Do You Call Yourself a Writer or an Author?” sees “author” as a title to be claimed, a mantel of some distinction:

But I want people’s first impression of me to be that I’m a professional writer and take my work seriously, so I claim the title of “author” in the header of my website. I am a writer because I write, but “author” embodies my goals, my actions, and my attitude toward writing. So I swallow the self-doubt that plagues most of us writers and strive to live up to the word “author.”

So then:

author = professional writer, writer = aspiring author?

Still not good enough for me. Still too didactic. Maybe:

author = writer with artistic pretension, writer = writer without ego?

I don’t like that either, though that’s a bit more in line with what Dean Wesley-Smith has written.

Roland Barthes, in his essay “The Death of the Author” takes a similar tack to Smith in that he sees the status of “author” as an intrusion on the medium itself, as a sort of self- or critic-made villain who does his readers, and the culture, a disservice by being placed alongside if not above his own work:

Auth--I mean, Writer, Roland Barthes.

Auth–I mean, Writer, Roland Barthes.

The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person.” Hence it is logical that with regard to literature it should be positivism, resume and the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s “person.”

Barthes continues in an attempt at separating the author (the person, the artist) from the art itself: the writing:

. . . it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality—never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist—that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself.”

So that, unlike the “author,” the “writer” is separate from his writing in some way, expressing some larger truth rather than wallowing in his own self?

. . . the modern writer, having buried the Author, can therefore no longer believe, according to the “pathos” of his predecessors, that his hand is too slow for his thought or his passion, and that in consequence, making a law out of necessity, he must accentuate this gap and endlessly “elaborate” his form; for him, on the contrary, his hand, detached from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin—or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, that is, the very thing which ceaselessly questions any origin.

And all this seems to be Barthes’s assertion that a sort of post-author world has been achieved, giving birth to a naturalist approach?

. . . succeeding the Author, the writer no longer contains within himself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions, but that enormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation.

Okay, tell that to J.K. Rowling.

Clearly the era of the Author (capital intended) is far from behind us.

I’ve seen some indication that the difference between “author” and “writer” is that the title “author” denotes some degree of success and/or legitimacy as a person who uses writing to communicate ideas and emotions, while the word “writer” might call to mind someone who writes catalog copy or insurance pamphlets or other works of utilitarian communication meant neither to entertain nor illuminate.

Robin Storey, in “Writer V Author—What’s The Difference?” seems to be coming at it from that angle:

On the surface there doesn’t seem to be much difference, but I’ve always known there was, without stopping to analyse why. But as I’m about to publish my first novel on Amazon, with a second to follow a few weeks after, I now think of myself as an author, not a writer. Somehow author has a more authentic, professional ring to it. An author is someone who takes their writing seriously and often makes a career of it, whereas a writer could be composing long, lovelorn sonnets in their attic for years with no one being any the wiser—not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you happen to be a budding Byron.

But I’ve also gotten the feeling that, by definition, “author” is a specific sort of writer, who expresses him/herself in book form as opposed to other specific sorts of writers like playwrights, screenwriters, copywriters, etc.?

That might get us, finally, to a distinction I can sign off on, personally. If I’ve written a book, I can be described as the author of that book. If I’ve written a play, call me a playwright. When I write poetry, I am a poet.

And yes, I am intentionally ignoring the word “novelist.”

I guess you could make a further distinction that a novelist is someone who writes novels, but then we’re starting to get into what feels to me to be an unwieldy series of specific differentials: novelist, memoirist, biographer . . . How important are those distinctions?

In the end I tend to agree with author Nicole Evelina, from her blog post “Author vs. Writer”:

Really, it boils down to semantics. Oftentimes, I use the words “writer” and “author” interchangeably, because really, they mean the same thing—someone who writes. If you asked me which I prefer, I’d say “author,” only because to me, that is more evocative of the literary nature of what I do. You can “write” anything (and I write all day long for my day job, so I know): newsletters, articles, ad copy, cereal box text, instruction manuals. But the word “author” seems to me to be more reserved for those who write literary works: books, poems, plays, etc. That’s why I like it. It speaks to who I am. I’ve been using it since my writing became more than an occasional hobby and I plan on using it well into my future days as a best-seller.

Call yourself what you want, then, right? Just don’t succumb to the temptation to use either “author” or “writer” as a pejorative. I’ll stand up for either or both.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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ALL THE STORY STRUCTURE YOU’LL EVER NEED

I don’t avoid a lot of subjects when it comes to writing fiction, but story structure has always set me cringing a bit. Okay, yes, I teach an online course based on Lester Dent’s pulp fiction “formula,” and I’m (unfortunately) fully aware of Joseph Campbell’s creativity-murdering Hero’s Journey, but too much “structure” just feels . . . icky to me in terms of storytelling. So how about this as a fast start that might then get you structuring your own story in whatever way you damn well choose—hopefully in a way that surprises and delights people who don’t give a crap what Campbell says you’re supposed to do.

One sentence, nine words:

The villain starts the story, the hero ends it.

And that’s all the story structure you’ll ever need.

One example might actually be enough to cement it. I’m a Dune fan, so let’s see if Frank Herbert used that structure:

One of the undisputed classics of the genre.

One of the undisputed classics of the genre.

Paul begins the story of Dune as an innocent, moving, along with his family, to the strange desert planet Arrakis. This move was not Paul’s idea but was precipitated by one of the book’s villains, the emperor, who has it out for Paul’s father and uses the more active villain, the Baron Harkonnen, as his weapon. Paul’s life is thrown into turmoil when the villains’ plans smash into his family and he’s pushed out on an epic struggle to set things right. Spoiler alert, he does—defeating both the baron and the emperor to seize control of the entire galaxy. The emperor (the villain) starts the story of Dune, Paul (the hero) ends it.

Voila!

Simple? Sure, but then there’s all those thousands of words to actually make it happen.

I am willing to dig just a smidge deeper. James R. Hull, in his article “Protagonist and Antagonist: Beyond Hero and Villain” at Narrative First, puts both hero and villain in orbit around what he refers to as a “story goal”:

It all begins with the initial event or decision that creates the story’s problem. A chasm opens up and an effort begins to take shape—one with the sole purpose of resolving that inequity. The Story Goal represents that final step in the resolution process. Complete it and the characters have resolution. Leave it open and the problem persists far beyond the walls of the story.

This Goal then becomes a concern to everyone in the story. It is not simply the Protagonist’s Goal or an individual Goal of another character, but rather the Goal of focus for the entire cast. It is an objective goal.

This holds up under the example of Dune as well in that the ultimate goal for everyone involved is to be in control of the spice. The spice trade is everything to the single-resource empire Frank Herbert envisioned. If you control the spice, you control the universe.

But then the inevitable: But I don’t want to tell an old fashioned story of perfect hero vs. dastardly evil guy. I’m smarter than that and so are my readers, and we want to explore the shades of gray!

Fine. Your “hero” doesn’t have to be a particularly swell person. All this still works perfectly well for anti-heroes, as described in an uncredited article at Writer’s Digest, “Defining and Developing Your Anti-Hero”:

An anti-hero is a protagonist who is as flawed or more flawed than most characters; he is someone who disturbs the reader with his weaknesses yet is sympathetically portrayed, and who magnifies the frailties of humanity.

Who says that character can’t end the story? He might end it in a more violent way, in a less traditionally “heroic” way, but end it he does. And I remain unconvinced that we all really have a good shared definition of “heroic” to start with. My conflation of “hero” and “protagonist,” I’ll admit, might not always hold water.

In terms of structure, sometimes it makes sense to set the hero of the story at a remove, or as some might say, make a distinction between the “main character” (who we experience the story through) and the “protagonist” (the character who actually moves the plot forward to the end), as described in Dramatica: Theory of Story:

. . . a hero is a blended character who does two jobs: move the plot forward and serve as a surrogate for the audience. When we consider all the characters other than a Protagonist who might serve as the audience’s position in a story, suddenly the concept of a hero becomes severely limited. It is not wrong, just limited. The value of separating the Main Character and Protagonist into two different characters can be seen in the motion picture To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, the character Atticus (played by Gregory Peck) is clearly the Protagonist, yet the story is told through the experiences of Scout, his young daughter.

Okay, then nothing as reductive as “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it” will ever adequately describe all the nuances and twists in a well-plotted novel, but I think you’ll see that A-line still running throughout, whether the hero is an anti-hero like Dirty Harry (that story begins with the villain, too, by the way) or even in stories where it might be a little difficult—Mr. Robot jumps to mind, as does its intellectual cousin Fight Club—to tell who the hero is and who might be the villain, and anyway they might be the same character with two personalities. Still, it was “Tyler Durden” blowing up Edward Norton’s unnamed character’s condo that got the story of Fight Club off to a start, and Edward Norton shooting himself in the head in an effort to kill the devil within him ends it.

By all means, apply those shades of gray, whatever filters your imagination can conceive, but somebody has to start the story and that’s almost always the “villain,” and if your “hero” doesn’t end it, he/she/it was never the hero of the story in the first place.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XX: HEINLEIN’S RULES: FIVE SIMPLE BUSINESS RULES FOR WRITING

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.

 

Dean Wesley Smith is an extremely prolific author with over a hundred novels under his belt. He’s recently gone all-in on independent publishing, including a monthly magazine, Smith’s Monthly, devoted to only his own stories—a feat I don’t believe any other author has ever accomplished. Along with his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch, herself an accomplished author of science fiction and fantasy, he runs WMG Publishing, which blurs the line between self- and small press publishing—a distinction that’s gotten a bit blurry around the edges of late across the board.Hrules

Published this year by WMG, Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing is one of a number of similar titles by Dean Wesley Smith offering advice to authors in and out of the science fiction and fantasy genres. With the wealth of experience he has to draw from, his is advice is well worth a read, but as I’ll put forward as we go, not necessarily to be accepted without question.

 

But then, no advice should ever be accepted without question, and of course that includes my own. Even if I’m critical of certain of this book’s assertions, I hope you’ll read it, and as with everything, take from it what’s useful to you, and . . . well, you get the idea.

As the title makes quite clear, this book begins with five “business rules” first set down by science fiction grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein, in a part of an essay included in the 1947 book Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Sounds like good advice—simple advice—and from this starting point, Smith digs a bit deeper, though really just a bit.

I bought the paper book—I’m like that, being old and everything—and it weighs in at only 55 pages (not including the excerpt from his book Writing Into the Dark. I’m a notoriously slow reader, but I knocked this out in a single sitting—barely an hour, and I was stopping to make notes. But then, brevity is the soul of wit. If he says what he needs to say in 55 pages, then 55 is exactly the right number of pages. I would contend that he doesn’t say everything he needs to say in that many pages, and the book left me wanting for detail, but for what it’s worth, the book is an easy read, and Smith’s style is conversational, maybe a tad condescending (but that can happen to the best of us), and does seem to come from a good place. I felt he truly believes in these rules, believes in the positive effect they’ve had on his own career, and believes they will be of similar use to any and every other author who adopts them. And in that he and I are in almost total agreement.

It might be in that passion for the rules that he gets into a bit of trouble, especially in his assertion that there’s some novelty to the advice itself: “Also, these five rules smash into so many writing myths.” Do they? I’m definitely not the first or only person ever to say things like “writers write” or “write fast” and so on—I’m not even the first person to offer that advice today. But then, let’s get back to Heinlein’s original intention, which was to provide business rules—advice for how to conduct your career as a writer, and not necessarily how to write better fiction.

I was immediately onboard with Smith in the first lines of Chapter One:

For lack of a better way of putting it, Heinlein’s Rules allow you to get to the fun of being a writer.

They also help us all remember we are entertainers.

Indeed we are, and there isn’t the slightest thing wrong with that. But then:

I’m an entertainer.

It never occurs to me to add that literary stuff in purposely. But clearly it is there.

And by “that literary stuff” Smith means theme—any deeper meaning to the story, some political or social comment.

This bugs me. I’ve made the point in the past that every story is about something, and I stand by that. That doesn’t mean you have to be a “political author” in the vein of George Orwell, but it does mean that every story communicates something. If Dean Wesley Smith prefers that message to come by accident, okay, though I doubt that’s universally true of his own work. If any particular reader then interprets that story in some way the author hadn’t consciously intended—great. But this thread of didacticism begins early in this book and worms its way throughout—and really doesn’t serve Dean Wesley Smith, or his readers, very well. It seems to indicate that he’s purposely, joyfully writing meaningless fluff that someone might later misinterpret to have any greater meaning, and if they do, he’d rather not hear about it.

You can entertain and make a point, and you can do that consciously. You can also do that subtly. Point of disagreement number one.

But then Smith does remind us that these are business rules—advice more for what to do with the story once it’s written than how, exactly, to write it or whether or not it’s all for fun or might be a society-altering polemic for all time.

I’ll save his distinction between writer and author for another time, and dive into the rules themselves, and Dean Wesley Smith’s interpretation of them.

Rule #1: You Must Write

How could anyone possibly disagree with this? I sure as hell don’t.

Unless you’re actually writing, you aren’t a writer you’re an “Idea Man,” and as I’ve said before, no one cares about your great idea.

Write it down.

With each rule, Smith concentrates on why people don’t follow that rule, or why that rule is more difficult to follow than it may sound:

What stops most people isn’t lack of time, it’s fear.

Committing words to paper means you might have to show them to someone. The words might fail: you might be found wanting.

And again, I couldn’t agree more. If Heinlein’s first business rule is to be followed you have to write for the sake of writing, then toss it out there to sell or not to sell . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. He even ends Chapter Three with:

Dare to be Bad.

You might discover along the way just how good a storyteller your subconscious really is.

Agreed.

Rule #2: You Must Finish What You Write

Of course. Just like no one cares about your Big Idea, no one cares about your Work in Progress. Have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s what a story is.

Fear is a recurring theme throughout Smith’s interpretation of Heinlein’s Rules, and I think he’s hit the nail on the head with that. We’re afraid to start writing, we’re afraid to continue writing, we’re afraid to finish writing, we’re afraid the send our writing out into the world, we’re afraid of criticism of our writing, we’re afraid we’ll fail as writers, we’re afraid we’ll succeed as writers . . . and on and on.

As I’ve often said myself, there is no way to “bowl a perfect game” in creative writing, no sure-fire recipe for success, let alone a single definition of success, and Smith takes this head on:

. . . a story must be some imaginary image of “perfect” before it can be released. And no story ever attains that.

For any of us, actually.

So let’s all try to shed that . . . good luck, right?

I’ve rejected literally thousands of manuscripts in my three decades as an editor but I have never rejected a single author. There is no Bad Manuscript Police. No one will arrest you, beat you, lock you up if your story isn’t exactly right for that publication on that day, or as Smith writes:

But yet the fear of mailing to an editor scares some writers beyond words. So they are better off not finishing than to have to face that fear.

Now we get to what is clearly the most controversial of Heinlein’s Rules, even for Dean Wesley Smith:

Rule #3: You Must Refrain from Rewriting Unless to Editorial Order

Smith’s assertion, whether or not this was Heinlein’s original intent, is that:

You get the story correct the first time, but you can fix typos, spelling, and wrong details.

I’m going to have to go ahead a disagree with Mr. Smith on that one.

Always give yourself permission to have a better idea, and always give yourself a reasonable amount of time to explore it. If as you’re making your pass through for typos, you feel a whole scene could benefit from a rewrite, rewrite it. But okay, do that once.

WorldBeyond

I think what Smith is going for here is that invisible line between revising just enough and revising too much. Not having any way to determine in advance for writers neither of us have ever met writing stories or novels we’ve never read, that line is impossible to see from a distance. Smith seems to take the fast out, then, which is to say never rewrite, ever.

That’s just too either/or for me. Still, I think Dean Wesley Smith and I agree on this point more than we disagree. I have no magic number in mind for how may drafts is enough except a minimum of one, or how many is too many, though my initial instincts say three. Write it all the way through, then make one revision pass. If it still feels wrong somehow make another. At that point, based on no actual science, you’re probably not going to make it any better—get it out to an editor.

In an iO9 post, Charlie Jane Anders calls Heinlein’s Rules: “The Famous Writing Advice That Could Seriously Mess Up Your Game” and focused in on Rule #3:

The other benefit of rewriting, of course, is that you can have a lot more freedom in your drafts if you know that you’re going to fix them later. Sometimes you can make some intuitive leaps and then figure them out afterwards, or you can push the story forwards and then fill in the little character moments afterwards.

Anders quoted Patricia C. Wrede, who also took a critical view of Rule #3 in her post “Heinlein’s Rules for Writing (Mostly)”:

“Don’t edit unless an editor asks you to,” on the other hand, is about process. Process varies wildly from writer to writer; what works for one, won’t work for someone else. This rule, in particular, will work fine for those writers who, like Heinlein, can produce an almost-perfect first draft (and/or those few who still have professional editors they can rely on to ask for in-depth revisions when needed). It will work not at all for those writers whose first draft is over- or under-written, or which is otherwise deeply flawed.

Late in his career, Heinlein himself admitted that he did, in fact, revise/rewrite his work before sending it out, but he never, to the best of my knowledge, explained why he had laid down this particular rule.

Chapter Six continues Smith’s discussion of Rule #3, after some scathing remarks against agents and editors based on what might be a tragic misapprehension of the current state of the publishing industry that I’ll take on in a future post.

I found this to be particularly useful, though:

I will often get comments from writers in workshops when I say, “Great job. It works fine.” The writer wants to know what is wrong. If I don’t say anything is wrong, nothing is wrong.

That kind of thinking, of always thinking something is broken, comes directly out of this myth that everything must be rewritten because it is clearly broken.

I’ve struggled with this myself in both my pulp fiction and worldbuilding courses. I reverse that misconception back at some of my students, feeling guilty if I don’t have some criticism for them. After all, that’s what they’re paying for, right?

But is it?

If a writer writes something that works, it works, and saying: “I like this—it really works” has just as much value as saying “This doesn’t work—here’s how I think you should fix it.”

Sometimes the best editorial advice is: Leave it the hell alone.

I particularly like Smith’s summary of rule #3:

Forward.

Always face forward.

But then I’m forced to disagree with him on some advice from his discussion of . . .

Rule #4: You Must Put It on the Market

Though again, I absolutely agree with the rule as Heinlein stated it and as he clearly intended it, Dean Wesley Smith’s contemporary take on it showed his own bias, which, again, I’ll react to separately.

Leaving that aside for now, do heed this advice from Smith:

My only suggestion is to figure out systems that work for you to get the story from your computer and on the way to a magazine editor or a reader who can buy it.

And if your system beaks down, change it, fix it, get the stories out there.

Get past the fear, get past the ego, and just do it.

Exactly! What’s the point of writing it if no one’s ever going to read it?

Rule #5: You Must Keep the Work on the Market Until it is Sold

What can I add? Yup.

As an added bonus, I found elsewhere that Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer added a sixth rule, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree:

Rule Six: Start Working on Something Else

That’s my own rule. I’ve seen too many beginning writers labour for years over a single story or novel. As soon as you’ve finished one piece, start on another. Don’t wait for the first story to come back from the editor you’ve submitted it to; get to work on your next project. (And if you find you’re experiencing writer’s block on your current project, begin writing something new—a real writer can always write something.) You must produce a body of work to count yourself as a real working pro.

So then, some significant disagreements aside in terms of the state of the publishing industry as a whole and an author’s place in it, which I’ll try to tackle separately because I really think he’s giving some terrible and even self-contradictory advice, go read this book and think for yourself.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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SCREW IT, I’M TAKING A DAY OFF

I just finished a really big project, and have to get started right away on the next big project and another slightly smaller project, and I’ve got the Worldbuilding course going, and then there’s this other weird little project . . . I’ve got some stuff to do but I’m on top of all those things. My 3.85-hour workday has become a solid 6+-hour work day, and Facebook’s “feature” where it shows you old posts reminded both my wife and I that it’s been exactly four years since we last took a vacation. The current deadlines are off a bit in the future, which is to say I’m not behind, rushing to finish up, and so on. I’m on top of it—have been working my ass off, actually, including all weekend.

I need a break. I need my brain to do something else for a day before I start editing another book. I need to write. I need to read. I need to just sit quietly and stare off into space.

But it is Tuesday, so I still have a blog post to write, so how to reconcile needing a day off and having to write something that might be useful to someone who wants to learn how to write better?

Let’s see . . . hmm . . .

Have you ever thought maybe your characters need a day off?

Think about the last fantasy novel you read—there’s a lot going on. A lot at stake. And we don’t really see anyone just kinda, y’know . . . take a day.

And there are reasons for this, which I got into in a previous post, and that a smarter person than me once described:

The reason novels were so thick for so long was that people had so much time to kill. I do not furnish transportation for my characters; I do not move them from one room to another; I do not send them up the stairs; they do not get dressed in the mornings; they do not put the ignition key in the lock, and turn on the engine, and let it warm up and look at all the gauges, and put the car in reverse, and back out, and drive to the filling station, and ask the guy about the weather.

Kurt Vonnegut

But consider this:

No, as Mr. Vonnegut said, you absolutely should not show every detail of your characters’ days, but after you fast forward through the ten-day journey from castle to castle, maybe an offhand reference:

Rain had kept them off the road for a full day. Looking back, Galen missed that lazy afternoon in camp, the time to collect his thoughts and catch his breath.

Right?

There, a blog post. Now, the rest of the day is mine!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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SURPRISE VS. SUSPENSE VS. WRITING MONSTERS

It’s funny how sometimes these blog posts just pop up right in the moment.

This morning, while working through this week’s session of my online Worldbuilding course, commenting on one of the students’ assignment describing a monster, I paraphrased an interview with filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock that I remembered from college. That was a long tome ago and in my mind I swapped his words “surprise” and “suspense” with “horror” and “terror”—but the sentiment is the same.

God forbid I Google the thing before quoting it, but anyway I Googled at after I quoted it and found this, via the Olympia (Washington) High School of all places:

Mystery, Surprise, and Suspense According to Alfred Hitchcock

The following is an interview between famed French director Francois Truffaut (F.T.) and Alfred Hitchcock (A.H.).

F.T.—The word suspense can be interpreted in several ways. In your interviews you have frequently pointed out the difference between mystery, surprise, and suspense. Many people are under the impression that suspense is related to fear.

A.H.—There is no relation whatever. Let’s go back to the switchboard operator in Easy Virtue an early Hitchcock film. She is tuned in to the conversation between the young man and the young woman who are discussing marriage and who are not shown on the screen. That switchboard operator is in suspense; she is filled with it. Is the woman on the end of the line going to marry the man whom she called? The switchboard operator is very relieved when the woman finally agrees; her own suspense is over. This is an example of suspense that is not related to fear.

F.T.—Yet the switchboard operator was afraid that the woman would refuse to marry the young man, but, of course, there is no anguish in this kind of fear. Suspense, I take it, is the stretching out of an anticipation.

A.H.—In the usual form of suspense it is indispensable that the public be made aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise, there is no suspense.

Truffant & Hitchcock

Truffant & Hitchcock

F.T.—No doubt, but isn’t it possible to have suspense in connection with hidden danger as well?

A.H.—To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.

In the case of the switchboard operator in Easy Virtue, the emotion was her wish that the young man be accepted by the woman. In the classical situation of a bombing, it’s fear for someone’s safety. And that fear depends upon the intensity of the public’s identification with the person who is in danger.

I might go further and say that with the old situation of a bombing properly presented, you might have a group of gangsters sitting around a table, a group of villains . . .

F.T.—As for instance the bomb that was concealed in a briefcase in the July 20 plot on Hitler’s life.

A.H.—Yes. And even in that case I don’t think the public would say, “Oh, good, they’re all going to be blown to bits,” but rather, they’ll be thinking, “Watch out. There’s a bomb!” What it means is that the apprehension of the bomb is more powerful than the feelings of sympathy or dislike for the characters involved. And you would be mistaken in thinking that this is due to the fact that the bomb is an especially frightening object. Let’s take another example. A curious person goes into somebody else’s room and begins to search through the drawers. Now you show the person who lives in that room coming up the stairs. Then you go back to the person who is searching, and the public feels like warning him, “Be careful, watch out, someone’s coming up the stairs.” Therefore, even if the snooper is not a likable character, the audience will still feel anxiety for him. Of course, when the character is attractive, as for instance Grace Kelly in Rear Window, the public’s emotion is greatly intensified.

As a matter of fact, I happened to be sitting next to Joseph Cotten’s wife at the premiere of Rear Window, and during the scene where Grace Kelly is going through the killer’s room and he appears in the hall, she was so upset that she turned to her husband and whispered, “Do something, do something!”

F.T.—I’d like to have your definition of the difference between suspense and surprise.

A.H.—There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean. We are now having an innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens and then all of a sudden, “boom!” there is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.

Now let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is quarter to one. In these conditions the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen, “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

 

In that reply to a student this morning I paraphrased a portion of this interview in regards to the introduction of a monster into a story. In Writing Monsters, I went into some length regarding the staging of the reveal of a monster, working under what I continue to defend is an accurate premise: The more we know about a monster the less scary it becomes.

I think this is mostly true, but what about the other possibility, that the more you know of a monster the scarier it becomes?

Available Now!

Available Now!

Consider The Walking Dead.

Even before that series started, we knew what the George Romero-style zombie can and can’t do, and we know how to kill it. The Walking Dead chose not to mix that up in any detectable way, so here we have slow moving, dim-witted cannibals than can only be killed by traumatic brain injury.

Check.

But that doesn’t make them any less scary. In fact, knowing that they’re offering the Death of a Thousand Bites makes them scary. Knowing that they can be killed but it isn’t easy makes them even scarier. Putting a whole horde of them together to overwhelm you makes them scarier still.

So what The Walking Dead and similar monster stories play off of isn’t the sense of mysterious “other” that many, if not most monster stories depend on, but the terror of knowing precisely how bad it’s going to be if they get you in their clutches—and that can be sustained for a lot longer. They can, conceivably, remain scary episode after episode, season after season, because we know there’s a bomb there, essentially, and know that it can go off any minute, and knowing what a bomb can and can’t do or that under some set of limited circumstances it could be defused, doesn’t necessarily lessen that suspense, that terror.

—Philip Athans

This just in: If you have HBO you must watch the documentary, just added: Hitchcock/Truffaut. Why have I not read this book yet? I’m going to!

Posted in Books, freelance editing, freelance writing, horror movies, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, monsters, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment