The Directorate
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At long last, here is the novel I’ve been talking about for the last few months. I started writing this back in August, and polished off the first draft some time in October. I’ve wanted to do a Space Opera/Science-Fantasy military adventure for some years now, because those were the sorts of books, movies, and games I liked best as a kid and teenager. Some elements of this story have been kicking around in my head since I was 12 years old. (Others, of course, are as old as science fiction itself.)

It’s definitely slower-paced than The Start of the Majestic World—there’s a lot of backstory, world-building and political machinations in this one, but I enjoyed being able to set the scene a little more compared to the deliberately vague setting of Majestic World.

I wrote several posts about my process as I was working on this book:

Here you can read my concerns about how there is one scene and character who is similar to one in Majestic World, and why I decided it’s OK.

Here you can read my musings on “Mary Sues”, whether my protagonist is one, and why they are so popular.

Here is where I addressed whether it had enough words, too many words, or not enough words.

Here is where I considered whether it was funny enough

On most of these questions, I decided that what I was doing was probably right, or at least that any other approach I could think of wouldn’t have been as good. That’s not to say that another author might not have been able to tell the story better, but only that I didn’t know how to tell the story any better. Your mileage may vary.

The thing I’ve enjoyed most about this whole process has been the comments I’ve gotten from readers, both here on the blog and on Twitter. It’s been a lot of fun, posting about various aspects of the book and hearing what other folks think. So, many thanks to Carrie Rubin, Phillip McCollum, Eileen Stephenson, Barb Knowles, Mark Paxson, Pat Prescott, Thingy, and all the other readers who stop by here. I appreciate all of you!

So, this is the project I’ve been hinting about on Twitter these last few weeks. I decided to do it on a lark, and ultimately it turned into way more work than I expected. Yet for some reason I kept going. I’m not even sure why; I had more or less accepted the fact that some technical glitch was eventually going to scuttle it, but I just kept plugging away at it, and here we are.

I’m not happy about the reduced size of the video and all the black space on the screen. I’m a total newbie when it comes to making videos, so there’s probably an easy fix that I just failed to figure out. It might have something to do with the resolution (The original was saved at 720p. At 480p the footage is in an even smaller box.) If I figure out how to solve it, I might do a re-upload. But that probably won’t happen for a while; I’ve got other stuff I want to work on first.

Consider this video a supplement to the KotOR II retrospective I wrote a few years ago. The essay is more thorough—and more eloquent—than my remarks here, but I hope having some footage from the game helps make my points a little more clear, especially for people who haven’t played it. The reason I keep talking about this game so much is that I think it contains lots of useful examples for writing fiction generally, not just games.


Maybe you’ve heard the term “experimental fiction”. It’s usually used to mean some form of fiction that is very unusual in form, as opposed to “literary” or “genre” fiction. Experimental fiction typically means fiction that breaks all the established rules of literature.

As with everything, breaking the rules often means you crash and burn. The rules are there for a reason. But once in a while, it leads to great discoveries and innovations that alter the entire field.

I’ll be honest: I have never much liked these divisions of “literary” and “genre” and “experimental” fiction. To me, there are only two kinds of books — good ones and bad ones.

The truth is, all fiction is an experiment. The writer puts together the tale as best he or she can, and then there is a process — similar to a chemical reaction —  that determines how it plays in the readers’ minds. Every reader brings their own experience and perspective to a book, and there’s no knowing what their perception of it will be.

Now it’s true, there are certain types of stories that each individual will tend to like or dislike. I like sci-fi and horror in general, and am usually not much for fantasy or murder mysteries. But there are always exceptions. There are horror stories I hate and murder mysteries I love.

Every writer, regardless of whether they are classified as literary, experimental, or in some genre or other, is writing because they feel they have something to say that no one else can. Maybe there are those who write so-called “potboilers” and are just in it for the money, but even they have to try to bring something at least somewhat new to the table — otherwise their work won’t sell.

But it’s always an experiment, even for the most famous authors. I could name works by my favorite authors that I don’t think are very good, and one-hit wonders by authors who never again wrote anything I liked.

[I want to reexamine a topic I first wrote about here—I’ve given it some more thought, and come up with a few new points.]

When you look for writing advice, sooner or later you see tips like “Avoid lengthy descriptions” and “Cut all unnecessary words.” (These are two of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, but lots of other people have said similar things.)

Well, I’m here to tell you that having fewer words isn’t always better. And sometimes, it’s worthwhile to describe characters and things in detail.

I know this because I once believed these nuggets of advice wholeheartedly. I think I subconsciously always thought wordy descriptions were for pretentious twits who wanted to sound fancy. Reading this advice just validated what I already wanted to believe.

It wasn’t until I started writing fiction and my readers started asking “Why don’t you describe stuff?” that I began to think I was mistaken. (It took embarrassingly long for me to become willing to admit this.)

I started thinking about the work of other writers I regularly read. Did they describe stuff? Well, yes, they did. Did they always use the minimum number of words needed to say what they wanted to say? Not really.

H.P. Lovecraft

Here’s the opening paragraph from H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tale, The Call of Cthulhu:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

This could be much more simply rendered as:

It’s better not to know some things.”

Same point, fewer and shorter words. Must be better, right?

P.G. Wodehouse

Here’s another example, this from P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves:

“Contenting myself, accordingly, with a gesture of loving sympathy, I left the room. Whether she did or did not throw a handsomely bound volume of the Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at me, I am not in a position to say. I had seen it lying on the table beside her, and as I closed the door I remember receiving the impression that some blunt instrument had crashed against the woodwork, but I was feeling too pre-occupied to note and observe.”

He could have just written:

“I left the room, and I think she threw a large book at me, but I was pre-occupied with other matters.”

Much shorter! And yet… that doesn’t seem as good, does it? It’s still funny, but Wodehouse’s more thorough description is more amusing.

As for description: we can argue over how much is too much—it’s true that you don’t want a multi-paragraph description of somebody’s eye color. But few people would even think of writing that in the first place

Readers want to form a coherent picture in their mind’s eye, and reading physical characteristics helps them to remember people and things; just as when you meet someone in real life, you tend to remember them by certain physical attributes. Anyone who has ever read Harry Potter can instantly tell you what color Ron Weasley’s hair is.

Another good example of why it’s sometimes worthwhile to dwell on descriptions is the opening of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces:

“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.”

This is some pretty detailed description, but it does more than just tell us what Reilly looks like. It also gives us an idea of his personality. From this point on, we have an impression of him to file away and call up whenever his name appears on the page. The cap, the moustache, the oddly –colored eyes—all these things paint a vivid picture of the character.

Could you trim this down a bit? Sure. Just say:

“A mustachioed man in a green hunting cap looked around disapprovingly at the crowd.”

But that doesn’t linger long enough to make an impression in the reader’s mind. They’ve passed it before their brains are even fully engaged, and as a result, have formed no mental picture of the character.

To be clear: I’m not saying I favor describing every detail you can think of. In horror especially, there are some things you should leave to the reader’s imagination. But you don’t want to leave too much, or else you don’t have a book. You just have a very sophisticated outline. Many of my early stories fall into this trap.

So, why do legendary writers like Leonard say to avoid lengthy passages and detailed descriptions, when that isn’t what readers want? Even more confusing: why do many authors preach that while not practicing it?

My guess is that a skilled writer becomes so adept at translating their vision to the page that it ceases to feel like description at all. The descriptive passages, the dialogue, and the action scenes are all so woven together it becomes difficult to separate one piece from the whole.

Moreover, this is also the reader’s impression of good writing.  Well-written description doesn’t even register as separate from dialogue or plot—it’s all part of the world that the reader becomes immersed in.

Note the all-important qualifier “well-written”. If your description is badly-written, you’re in trouble. But that’s true of anything in any book.  And if someone asks for advice on writing, saying “write well” seems like a useless thing to tell them. The question is, how do you write well?

The answer is not to minimize description and word counts. I think the real answer is something like “Make the description integral to the overall story”. As in the example from Dunces, you want your descriptive passages to be tied in with the characters and the world.

In other words, don’t just tell the reader that “This jerk had light-brown hair and glasses”. Tell them that “The sandy-haired man peered at him through his spectacles, as though he were some type of revolting insect.”

This tells the reader both how the character looks and how he behaves, allowing them to quickly make a mental note:

Brown-haired glasses guy = jerk

This is what readers want—the ability to quickly and easily understand characters, places and things.

Anton Ego from the movie “Ratatouille”. Image via IMDb

My most viewed posts on this blog, not counting one anomaly, are my reviews of movies, books, video games, etc. So I thought I’d talk about how I write them and, more significantly, what I think an effective review should do.

The easiest way to begin is to categorize reviews by usefulness. I based the idea on Paul Graham’s disagreement hierarchy.  Reviewing something isn’t exactly the same as arguing, but they are related in the sense that both should be about working to improve something, so there is a fair amount of overlap.

[In the following x = any movie, book, game etc. being reviewed.]

Tier 1 – The Most Useless Review

“This x sucks. I hated it. Why would anyone think it was good? What a terrible piece of work.”

This review is useless to everyone except the reviewer. It does not explain what the flaws with the x were, nor does it even give us an idea of what the reviewer looks for in xes.

Note that a really good writer can dress up a useless review very nicely, so much that you might think it’s a useful review. For example:

“x is a piece of unmitigated tripe, the likes of which I am sorry to have ever had the displeasure of enduring. It is a blot on the [whatever x’s genre or medium is] landscape.”

This sounds kind of funny and clever, but it doesn’t say anything helpful.

Tier 2 – A Mostly Useless Review

“I loved this x! It’s the best one ever. Everything about it was terrific.”

This is close to being as useless as a Tier 1 review. In fact, I was originally going to group it as a Tier 1, but then I realized that there are two important differences. First, while a Tier 2 might be useless to everyone else, if I read a Tier 2 review of something I made, it would at least make me happy.

And secondly, if somebody wrote a Tier 2 review about one of my books, it would be more useful to me than a Tier 1, because if I know someone liked something, I can figure out how to produce more things they’ll like by sticking to that formula. Whereas with a Tier 1, I have no idea how to produce something they will like. It’s completely useless feedback.

That said, while a review like this is mildly helpful to the creator themselves, it’s useless to all other consumers. They have no way of determining what was good about the x in question—all they know is this reviewer liked it for some reason.

Tier 3 – The Diagnostic Review

“I liked the parts of the x with these characteristics. I didn’t like the other parts with these characteristics. The second half was stronger than the first. It reminded me of y at times, but lacked its [some element of y]. Fans of z will like it.”

This is getting somewhere. This review tells us some specific elements about the x that they thought were good or bad, and provides a reference point that we can use to start to form an idea of what x is, and what type of audience it would appeal to.

This is an informative, workmanlike review, and if I write a review this good, I feel like I’ve done my job. But there is still one higher form to aspire to:

Tier 4 – The Corrective Review

“The central flaw of x is its [some characteristic], which could have been fixed by the following adjustments.”

Or, if it’s a positive review:

“What makes x work so well is its [some characteristic]. This separates it from [other things in x’s genre or medium] to make it truly effective.”

The best type of review not only diagnoses what is good and/or bad about an x, but states why these elements are there, what could be done to fix them if they are bad, and how to replicate them if they are good.

The best review, in other words, not only tells you the negatives and positives of x, but provides sketch blueprints of how to make more and/or better xes. If it’s a bad x, a good review tells you what went wrong and how to fix it. If it’s a good x, it tells you how to replicate its goodness.

Not surprisingly, Tier 1 reviews are the easiest to write and Tier 4 reviews are the hardest.

Also, it’s important to realize that context matters. Sites like Amazon encourage short reviews, and on average a Tier 1 or 2 will be much shorter than a Tier 4. A Tier 4 is an extended argument, in that you have to make a series of statements that follow one another logically.

Realistically, I think a Tier 3 is the most you can ask for from anyone who isn’t a professional writer or trying to become one.  Tier 4s take too much time. The most useful Amazon reviews I see are all Tier 3s. My eyes glaze over when I see a really long Amazon review, so even if it’s extremely helpful, it probably isn’t worth posting there.

On blogs or sites dedicated specifically to criticism, it’s a different story. On my blog, I feel like I have license to go on as long as I need to make my point.  (You may have realized that already.)

One thing I noticed once I started thinking about this is how many professional reviewers are only capable of writing Tier 1 and 2 reviews, albeit dressed up with five-dollar words and clever turns of phrase. How are they getting away with this? Well, people don’t read professional critics solely to get information, they also read them to be entertained. And nothing is more entertaining than a well-written negative review.¹

This is dangerous. There’s a strong incentive to write negative reviews, because they tend to attract more attention and comment. And if you’re focused on being negative, you’re very likely to lose sight of the thing that makes a Tier 4 review: ways to make the x in question better.

When faced with a choice between being helpful and being entertaining, critics feel a strong pull towards being entertaining. I’m guilty of this myself—writing a scathing but unhelpful review is way more fun and more rewarding (in terms of page views and comments) than writing an extremely useful review.

I’m not saying you can’t be witty and entertaining when you write a review, but that you should be careful not to lose sight of the larger goal. The job of an x critic is to figure out how to make good xes and avoid making bad ones.

Looking back at reviews I’ve written, I’m not sure that I’ve ever achieved a Tier 4. Probably the best one I’ve done so far is this review of Planescape: Torment. I say it’s the best because it’s the only one where I figured out why I liked it so much as I was writing the review. I felt like by writing it I was finally solving a mystery I’d been trying to answer since I first played the game in 2010.

This brings me to a final point about Tier 4 reviews: writing one will probably mean going over the x in question more than once. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I usually have to read/watch/play something at least twice before I can give a useful review of it. This is another reason Tier 4s are so rare.


1.Mark Twain’s brutal review of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels is a good example of this.

Many moons ago, when I was in college, I had to take what they called a “writing course”, which was a class designed specifically to teach writing, but about subjects in our chosen major. (Mine was Econ.) I think the point was to prevent a bunch of mathematics geniuses from taking over the field with equations and graphs strung together by incoherent babble.

It doesn’t seem to have worked.

Anyway, the section I was in was unpopular, because the professor assigned not one, not two, not three, but four books. Now, they were all short books, and one of them (The Ghost Map) actually became one of my favorites. But that’s not the one I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the first one we had to read: The Doctors’ Plague.

The book is about Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who, in the 1840s, tried to reduce the so-called “childbed fever” then prevalent in the hospital where he worked. Germ theory was not widely understood at the time, and Semmelweis’s radical proposal was that doctors and nurses who treated infants and mothers should wash their hands.

This sounds absurdly obvious to us modern readers, but at the time it was heretical, and indeed, Semmelweis wasn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. Whether due to his difficult temper, some unknown mental disorder, or possibly a language barrier, Semmelweis failed to prevail upon the medical community to adopt hand-washing as a regular practice. He died in an insane asylum, and his work was not recognized until long after his death.

Naturally, we Econ students were all puzzled by this. (Those of us that read it, that is. I suspect a quarter of the class just looked up the book’s synopsis online, and another quarter didn’t even do that.) What on God’s Green Earth does this have to do with Supply and Demand?

After the week or whatever our allotted time to read the book was, the professor started the class by giving his summary of the book–I assume for the benefit of the ones who didn’t read it. He finished up by raising the question we were asking ourselves: why did he assign this?

The point of the book, he said, was that Semmelweis couldn’t communicate his ideas to his colleagues. “So,” he concluded, “You have to learn to write well! It doesn’t matter if you discover something great if no one can understand you.”

I think he intended this as a carpe diem moment, but most of the class felt like they’d just been told the world’s longest shaggy dog story. But he was right; you do have to be able to write well, no matter how good your underlying point is.

I’m not even sure if that was really the main lesson of the Semmelweis story, but nevertheless, it’s true. And regardless of whether writing well has anything to do with Semmelweis or not, the professor created a helpful mnemonic: writing well is as important as good hygiene in a hospital.

[The other day I came across this unfinished humor novel I wrote when I was sixteen. I hadn’t looked at it for over a decade. Parts of it are funny. Most of it is stupid.  What follows are a few of the highlights–I left out the really lame bits. For background: it was intended as a satire of spy/thriller  stories, as well as poking fun at my favorite target, government bureaucracies. Teen-aged me was an ardent libertarian, so take all of it with a generous helping of salt. Also don’t miss my juvenile attempt at Gilbertian wordplay at the end. Enjoy!–BG]


The following story is true.

(Note: This story is not actually true. That was a literary device.)

The following story is in compliance with section V, article xii of the drama treaty of English-speaking nations. By reading this story, you certify that you are (a) literate and (b) not visually impaired in any way that would prevent reading. If you are found to be in violation of either or both of these conditions you may or may not be penalized. Before reading the story that follows, you must take out all your identification and read it aloud. If any or all of your identification papers are expired, you must renew them before reading this story. Reading of this story without proper and up to date identification is punishable by fine or imprisonment under article xii, section V of the California—Maine Fiction Code. No person or persons under the age of 21 may take away a moral from this story without filling out a moral-requisition form in compliance with article xvii of the Alaska state constitution. If multiple morals are taken away, a requisition form must be filled out for each moral. Any and all themes, motifs, etc. in this story are in compliance with article cvvxxi, section C of the American Motif Code. The character(s) in this story is/are certified and in compliance with all regulations regarding character(s) in English fiction. (English fiction referring to all fiction written in English by persons of any nationality.)

Reading of this story out loud is strictly prohibited.



Most days, it’s a real struggle for me to get started on writing even a paragraph in one of my stories. Once in a great while, I’ll be struck by some inspiration and then it’s just a matter of getting the words down as fast as I can, but that’s rare. The more normal case is something like this:

 I need to write something where X happens.

 [Write a word or two]

Huh, I wonder what’s going on in the news.

 [Half hour later, force myself to write another sentence or two]

Are there any good videos on YouTube?

I have to consciously force myself to stay on task and write something down. If I manage to do that, most of the time I hate what I’m writing up until I finish, at which point it starts to seem possibly decent. But the whole time I’m doing it, I feel like I’m doing lousy work, and moreover, it takes all my willpower to even do that.

Why is this? Writing is supposed to be what I like doing. No one is forcing me to do it—it’s what I want to do.  But then why am I strongly tempted to avoid doing it, like it’s a job or something?

At first, I thought maybe I was just a lazy bum. But I follow lots of hard-working writers on Twitter, and they frequently report this same problem. I even did a poll of my followers, and while the sample was small, 100% reported they procrastinated:

So, it’s not just me being lazy. Other writers face this problem too.

The simple and obvious explanation is that writing is active. You have to consciously do something to make it happen. Whereas reading the news or watching cat videos is passive—you just find your way to the site and put your mind on cruise control.

But this doesn’t totally explain it. One of the ways I procrastinate is by playing video games. And that’s not passive; I still have to press buttons and make decisions to get the outcome I want in the game.  Yet it’s far easier for me to play a game of FTL or computer chess than it is to write. I don’t have to will myself to play a game.

My next-door neighbor has had all kinds of hobbies over the years I’ve known him, from shooting guns to building model airplanes to mixing drinks to, yes, playing video games. And he doesn’t seem to need a huge amount of willpower to make himself work at any of his hobbies. Why is my hobby different?

Part of the problem is that I’ll write something down and then think, “Well, that’s not any good”. This feels unsatisfying. And at some level, I think procrastination is a defense mechanism. Skimming the sports headlines may not yield much satisfaction, but at least it won’t be as disappointing as writing something imperfect.

But why should that be disappointing? After all, no one else is going to judge me by the first draft. No one else will even know it existed unless I show it to them. So why am I bothered if it’s not right the first time? I don’t get discouraged if I don’t win a video game right away. On the contrary, losing a game just makes me want to try again.

Writing, unlike other activities, is more closely associated with having an audience. After all, if you’re just writing for yourself, why bother writing? You know the story already—the only reason to write it down is to communicate it to others.

That’s the heart of the difference: When I play a video game or exercise or any of the other things I do for fun, my only audience is myself. If I’m satisfied with my performance, that’s all I need.

We are trained very early on that writing is different. Writing is what you do when you want to tell other people something. As a result, when you write, you are subconsciously trying to please other people.

Ta-da! This explains the mystery of why writers procrastinate. Procrastination is something you do when you are assigned a task by other people, and writing feels like that because that’s how we’re trained to regard it. It’s the same reason we all procrastinated when our teachers assigned us to write a paper on such-and-such-thing-no-one-cares-about.

Some of the most common advice I’ve seen from successful authors is stuff like “Write for yourself,” “Ignore your inner critic on the first draft” and perhaps the most common, “Lose your fear of writing”.*

This advice always puzzled me. Of course I was writing for myself! Who the hell else would I be writing these weird stories for? And my inner critic? Who’s that? As far as I knew, I didn’t have one. The fear thing seemed the most sensible, although for me, the fear wasn’t so much of writing as it was of publishing.

But now I see what all those famous writers were saying: you think you’re writing for yourself, but you aren’t really. In your unconscious mind, you are still trying to figure out what the readers are going to think of what you wrote. It’s a deeply-rooted habit, probably one that evolution instilled in us—the societies where people could clearly communicate their ideas to one another were the ones that flourished.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t write so that other people can understand you. But the point is, that has to come later. First, you have to treat writing as a personal challenge between you and the part of your mind that wants to stop you from doing it. It’s like working out: you know it’s good for you, and you know you will feel great afterward, but you have to overcome the natural instinct that tells you it’s easier not to do it.

The precise way to do this can vary from person to person. You’ll discover the method that works best for you as you go along.

One exercise that I think can help teach how not to write for an audience is to just try writing stream-of-consciousness. For this post, I deliberately tried an experiment where I turned off my sense-making filter and just spewed forth whatever came to mind. This is what resulted:

Grey window skies empty noises and duahgter nothing al dhpauiw hope thjat move listen coffee  righ fjor wdesk need time hope sk

Sitting on a cold day that is grey and deporessing why am I doing this write exercise imagine plains vision skies weird black nebulous

This seems like incoherent babble, but it’s really not all that random. For context: I was sitting at my desk by a window on a cold grey day, drinking coffee. I could hear people outside talking and someone said something about a daughter.

For the second paragraph, the other people shut up, and I started to let my imagination roam, which led to visions of Lovecraftian weird cosmic horror, because that’s my favorite genre, or at least the one I’m most familiar with.

As sloppy and gibberish-filled as that is, you can see my thought process even through all the errors and downright nonsense. Which brings me to my point: as in many other fields, “true randomness” is actually pretty hard to achieve in writing. Your brain will work very hard to force you to make sense. Which is helpful in many other ways, but the problem is that our brains have become so good that they will try to prevent us writing anything less than the perfect sentence on the first try. That part of the brain would much rather procrastinate than risk writing something nonsensical.

This is what all those famous writers mean when they say “Write for yourself” or “Don’t worry about the audience” or “Ignore the inner-critic.” It’s all true, but it’s not specific enough, because when you are tempted to put off writing and procrastinate instead, you don’t realize you’re writing for someone else, or that it’s your inner-critic, or your fear of the audience. It feels like you’re just trying to write something that makes sense, and for some horrible reason, you can’t.

That’s because it doesn’t make perfect sense, and your brain hates that. But it’s okay. You can fix it later. Editors and beta readers will make sure of that.

So my advice is: don’t worry about making sense. In fact, I’ll go even further: actively try to avoid making sense on the first draft. Just put down the most basic, sub-literate version of what you want to convey. You’d be surprised how hard it is to not make sense—your unconscious mind will keep you at least within saluting distance of it most of the time. After that, you can just iterate until your visceral idea has been refined into something your readers can understand.


* As Phillip McCollum has observed, fear can also be extremely useful for writers. But that’s fear of other things, not writing itself.


“They don’t blame you — so long as you’re funny!” –Jack Point, in The Yeomen of the Guard, by W.S. Gilbert.

One of the most interesting beta reader comments on my new novel was “Why don’t you make it funnier?”

This one stuck with me, because I already had a sneaking suspicion that the book was too humorless. Paul Graham’s point about good design sticks in my head: “Good design may not have to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design.”

I’ve struggled with this quite a bit. The book isn’t a comedy by any means—it deals with some very dark subjects. And yet… that doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. For example, racism, murder, and rape are all major elements in the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet it still has plenty of extremely humorous moments as well.

I read somewhere that a novel is supposed to capture “the totality of life”. If so, then it makes sense that it needs to have both the dark and the light moments—after all, real life has both.

But how do you put humor into a serious story? You can’t just put in a slapstick comedy routine for characters who are struggling with matters of life and death. It would seem out of place.

This is the problem that so-called “comic relief” characters were created to solve. And sometimes, that can work. But it’s easy for it to go wrong, and then you get something like Jar Jar Binks—a character whose antics clash with the main narrative and annoy the audience.

A better route is to have characters who are well-rounded enough to be both funny and serious. And actually, having funny characters is probably helpful in terms of the larger goal of making the reader care about them. Funny characters are more likeable.

One of the complaints I got about The Start of the Majestic World was the lack of banter between the two protagonists. This was because I just generally don’t like banter—it comes across as too forced to me. But I wonder now if this was really about an overall lack of humor in the book. (I did try to make some of the supporting characters entertaining, if not exactly comic.)

It’s tricky to find the right point to insert humor in a non-humor book.  At any given moment, the characters are dealing with serious problems, and so there never seems to be any specific point where it makes sense to insert comedy, even though the overall vibe is that the book needs more of it.

Another way is to put humor in the descriptions. The difficulty here is that my book is set in the distant future, and as such requires a fair amount of world-building and information about how the futuristic society works. And it’s tough to give the reader that information, much of which will ultimately be relevant to the plot, and be funny at the same time.

Even more importantly, humor relies on a shared frame of reference, so it’s hard to come up with really funny things to say in a futuristic society. Humor also involves playing with social norms, and when dealing with unfamiliar social norms, it doesn’t seem funny when they get violated. It just seems confusing.

This still doesn’t justify a lack of humor, though. Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke infused their science fiction stories with wit. What it comes down to is being able to write plausibly human and relatable characters in a futuristic and/or alien setting.  That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway—write characters with both serious and silly sides to them, and then put them in situations where the different aspects of their personalities can appear.

14 year-old me
14 year-old me (R, w/fangs)

For the last month, I’ve been looking through a lot of old family pictures to get good Halloween stuff to post on Twitter. I got plenty of that, but I also found lots of pictures of myself as a teenager that set me thinking about some things.

What struck me was how, in certain ways, I’m a lot like that younger version of me. He wanted to be a writer, he was interested in politics, he loved Halloween and ghost stories… If someone met 14-year-old me, and then was transported instantly through time to meet present-day me, they would recognize a lot of commonalities.

At least, in terms of raw interests, there are a lot similarities. The differences come in terms of things like skill-level. (I’m a much better poet now than when I was 14, for example.) And, I now have a lot more first-hand knowledge about how the world actually works, as opposed to teen-aged me, who just had a theoretical model based on stuff he’d read or seen on TV.

What bothers me, looking back, is all the stuff teenage me should have taken advantage of, if he had only been willing to. But he didn’t know what would happen, and so just sort of kept his head down, reading books and writing stuff that only he read.

Basically, he wasted a lot of time. And it occurs to me that somewhere out there, there are probably lots of other teenagers and young adults now in the same boat as I was, who vaguely know they want to be writers, but don’t know how to go about doing it.

My hope is that they’ll read this, and maybe it will help them avoid wasting time like I did.

If you’re interested in writing, do lots of it.

Teenage me thought the key to being a great writer was to read a lot of books, and then the idea for a great novel/essay/poem would eventually come to him. Not really. Reading is great and important, but if you want to be a writer, you have to write what you want, not what you think you should write based on some books you read.

The easiest way to do this is figure out what kind of book you’d like to read, and then go write it. (That’s a cliche, I know.)

Bottom line: if you have read enough to decide you’d like to be a writer (and let’s face it, few people who don’t like to read want to be writers), then it’s time to start writing.

Don’t be afraid to publish.

In the old days, before the internet, it was hard to get anything published. But now, anyone can do it. And it’s been that way since I was a teenager. But for a long time, I still was hesitant to publish anything for other people to read.

Why? I was scared. Of what? I’m not even sure. That people would sue me, or make fun of me, or that my ideas or stories would seem stupid.

Basically, I was afraid people would laugh at me. Looking back, this was a hugely irrational fear. The big problem I face is not ridicule or lack of privacy, but getting people to read anything I write. Getting an audience is the hard part–it takes years of publishing your work before it starts to happen. So the sooner you start, the better.

When you’re a kid, you assume that the world is full of bullies who will mock your work, like the ones in school. And sure, the internet has lots of that, although good publishing platforms provide safeguards against it. But the point is, unless you publish it, no one will see your work. And who is hurt by that? Well, you, for starters. But also the people all across the world who have similar interests to yours, for whom you have written the perfect thing, but who don’t get to read it because you didn’t publish it.

It doesn’t matter if what you write is bad

In the beginning, I was worried that my blogs on politics were facile, that my poems were awkward and pretentious, that my stories were incoherent and vague. In short, I worried that my work was bad.

I don’t worry about that any more. I know when I’m doing good work or not.

How do I know? Well, simply put, I wrote a lot of stuff that was in fact awful. I wince when I read some of my old blog posts from 2009 or ’10. What was I thinking?, I ask myself.

What’s funny is that at the time, I was so concerned with not writing bad stuff, and yet I managed to do it anyway.

Writing is like anything; you get better at it by doing more of it. What I know now is that I’ve written a lot of stuff that’s pretty bad–but I’ve also written a few things I’m very proud of. And I couldn’t have done the latter without doing a lot of the former. As such, I’m not even really ashamed of lousy poems or blog posts from my past–I look at them as a cost of doing business.

Remember: if you manage to write one really great essay, or novel, or poem, it will more than offset however many failed drafts and ill-advised scribblings you had to generate in order to do it. And there will be a lot of those.