Category Archives: Writing

Most of this blog is about writing, so most of the posts will be categorized, ‘Writing’. You can select this if you don’t care about anything that’s not writing.

Kickstarted Markets and Writers

After a few Twitter conversations over the last few days on the subject of Kickstarted fiction magazines, I’ve refined my thinking a bit.

I’ve backed kind of a lot of Kickstarter campaigns over the years — almost 60, many of them fiction but by no means all — and have opinions on what they ought to be for. So let me set them forth up front in the interests of letting you know where I’m coming from:

First and foremost, I think a Kickstarter is for projects that could not otherwise happen without a large outlay of initial capital. I look for projects where the creator is putting in plenty of their own time, energy, and opportunity; where all that’s lacking is cash.

Second, I look for campaigns that are looking to actually *kickstart* something, not just fund one project. I’d much rather fund someone who’s looking to start a new magazine (and has a plan for using the money raised to do that) than one issue of a magazine.

Third, I don’t care that much about the rewards. I’ll scan through and see if there’s something cool on offer in roughly the range I’m thinking of kicking in anyway (or something that will directly benefit a friend of mine). Sometimes this gets me to pay a little more, but I never kick in an amount of money I’m not willing to lose. I’m taking a risk, not making a pre-order.

So, I get irritated when I see people come back to the well over and over. It means that they DO have long-term goals, but failed to plan for them. I read the “Risks” section of a campaign very carefully (I’d much rather see a long Risks section than a short one!), and the risks I look for include the question of whether they’re going to pull off their long-term goals. In particular, for fiction projects where stories have already been written, I look for a “what will we do if we don’t raise the money” statement (there or elsewhere), and I get testy if the answer is “writers who have already written something and artists who have already contributed work get nothing.”

I also look for whether the campaign takes care of the people doing the work. For a magazine or anthology, that includes the writers of course, but it also includes the editors. KICK YOURSELVES SOME DAMN MONEY, EDITORS. I say this first as a matter of principle, because I think people who do creative work ought to get paid, period, and editing is creative work. Second, because an ongoing project is far more likely to go on if it’s not just a time sink for the creators. Far too often, I think this gets ignored because the people doing these projects wear both the publisher and editor hats. Publishers pushing all their risks onto the public don’t get paid out of the raised money, no, but that doesn’t mean undervaluing the editorial work just because it’s done by the same person.

Earlier in the year I had written off the Fireside Year 3 campaign as yet another return to the well. I had contributed to three of their four previous campaigns because I like what they do, but had had enough. Although they talked about turning this into a long-term thing beyond Kickstarter, they seemed to only be paying lip service to it (and didn’t mention their long-term goals in their Risks section) and so I had decided that they weren’t serious about making this a going concern, and so I was not interested.

Two days ago, though, they laid out their thinking in more detail. And while I might grumble about using Kickstarter instead of a subscription drive, I was persuaded enough, combined with one more factor, that I decided to back the project. It’s not perfect, but I think that they’ve got a sufficient mindset and skillset to make it work, and I’m willing to put some of my own money to make it happen.

Now I want to talk about that “one more factor”, which is specific to Kickstarters involving fiction, and takes some explaining.

So, I mentioned the hats issue before when it comes to editors and publishers. The same holds true for writers. There is an important principle at play here: Yog’s Law – money flows toward the writer. New writers are, for various reasons, prey animals. There are a lot of business practices ranging from innocent to outright scams that take advantage of the too-frequent willingness of writers (especially new ones) to shell out money to advance their careers. The law is not always violated when a person who is a writer shells out cash, however: Apparent violations of this law tend to involve the writer wearing more than one hat, particularly when self-publishing. Shelling out for advertising or cover art, for example, are publisher tasks not writer tasks; when the self-publishing writer does those things, they are acting with their publisher hat on.

Now, the vast majority of writers are also readers and fans. This is a good thing for the health of our community and for the vibrancy of our fiction. We read and we write and it’s all good… except that things get ticklish when it comes to money. Readers pay money to publishers who pay money to writers. And so it is perfectly natural for people who are writers to back Kickstarters for new magazines, when acting as readers.

Problems come up when writers as writers are asked to donate money for a new market. Sometimes there are overt violations of Yog’s Law, of course, or only slightly more subtle issues (discussed admirably by the tireless folks at Writer Beware!) like preferential treatment for backers.

What’s bothering me, though, are the more innocuous rewards and stretch goals that are more obviously aimed at writers. I don’t want to link to anyone because I don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, necessarily, so forgive me for being vague. Consider the stretch goal, “Pay our contributors an additional 1 cent per word” or a backer reward along the lines of, “Our editor will critique your short story or novel excerpt.” Both of these are laudable. The former is great for contributing writers, and the latter is a way to make use of donated expertise without additional cost of printing books or bookmarks or whatever.

But I have problems with both of those, because they encourage writers to think about making an outlay of money with their writer hat on. They’re not backing as readers (which is laudable), but as writers (which is problematic). The former goal in particular encourages writers to think of themselves as potential contributors, and hints — just hints — at this campaign as an investment in their writing careers rather than purely as a benefit to them as readers.

Now, there is clearly a gray area here, since (as others have correctly pointed out) writers tend to write in the same niches in which they read, and have a vested interest in the general health of that market niche. And nothing on this earth will stop a writer from backing an anthology or magazine in which they picture themselves being published. Even if you forbid backers from submitting, they’ll just use sock puppet accounts. That’s just the way writers are.

I do think, though, that there is a line to be drawn between accepting that writers will inevitably make financial decisions with their writer hats on, and encouraging them to. And that’s what made up my mind in favor of Fireside: the goals may have been generally writer-friendly (they do pay very well), but the stretch goals and rewards — the direct results of me as a potential backer choosing to right now donate a specific amount — were all aimed at getting me to think about Fireside with my reader hat on. And that, I think, is important to the ultimate success of the project as well: if it is pitched at readers and resonates with readers enough to fund, then I think it is a little more likely to be healthy and successful down the road.

Of the campaigns that do offer rewards and stretch goals aimed at writers, I don’t think any of them (short of overt payola) are doing wrong — quite the contrary, their hearts are very much in the right places! They’re offering what they can according to their own best judgments, and I’m not going to presume to tell them what’s right or wrong for their business because there are financial realities at play here (not to mention considerable emotional investment) that may outweigh what could be considered propriety theatre. I will probably be contributing to some of them! But even so, I think from now on I’m going to be a) avoiding writer-centric rewards, b) not contributing to already-funded campaigns whose stretch goals are aimed at writers, and c) trying to aim a little additional money and attention toward the more reader-oriented campaigns.


ETA: After an enlightening discussion on Twitter, Bart Leib persuaded me that I overstated things in discussing stretch goals above. (Some people might say I was wrong, but those people are wrong, and you wouldn’t want to listen to wrong people would you??) The higher per-word goal can be shown to directly result in more submissions and a better-quality product. Depending on how it’s presented in the pitch, that would be aimed more firmly at readers than I gave it credit for.

(Edited to clarify the “additional payment” as a higher per word goal)

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Posted by on 31 March, 2014 in Writing


A Useful Four-Act Murder Mystery Structure

I’ve talked about this before, here and elsewhere, and never really laid it out. I decided it would be useful to have it here as a reference, so here goes.

There are many variants on murder mystery plot structures, many of them super-effective both as mysteries and as carrier plots for larger ideas. The five-act structure is one of my favorites for long mysteries, but P.D. James has a particularly good four-act structure (which I call the “Two Body Plot”) from which she has rarely varied much over the last few decades, and it really works very well. She has successfully used these plots as a canvas on which to paint her thoughts on class, medicine, aging, religion, and all aspects of human life and death. It’s simple and it works, and if you’re thinking of writing a murder mystery but don’t know how, it’s a great place to start.

The four-act structure is useful in general because it lends itself to relatively tight plotting, even for those of us for whom long-form plotting is not a strong point: there are three tentpole events that are always in sight, and it’s hard to get too far from any of them. (I used it without realizing in CLAUDIUS REX, and am currently using a variant of it in THE WRONG CLIENT) The Two Body Plot variant on the four-act structure is easiest to identify because of the appearance at a predictable point of a second corpse. James of course used this repeatedly to great effect. Rex Stout used a version of this a lot (my favorite was PRISONER’S BASE), and I’ve seen it in novels by Agatha Christie and others as well.

I don’t really have names for the various acts in the Two Body Plot. I’ve seen names for three-act and five-act structures, but I haven’t really seen any I like for four-act structures. For one thing, some of the most successful TBPs are P.D. James’s, and they don’t match up all that well to the terminologies I’ve seen, partly because they don’t tend to either open or close with a bang. Rex Stout, in stories that seem to me to follow this structure uses character interactions to substitute for an inciting incident, and then a super-short fourth act. I’m going to go into the James version of the TBP, because it’s the one I most often want to refer to.

I’ve been talking about acts, but the important pieces are actually three events that I referred to as tentpoles above:

  • First Corpse
  • Second Corpse
  • Reveal (In a James novel, the Third Corpse. No, it’s not the Three Body Plot. Bear with me.)

Each event is discrete, and usually embodied in a single scene — if it’s not “onstage”, or directly described (the first two often aren’t) then the discovery of the fact takes its place. The characters are jerked around, have visceral reactions, and usually require a scene or two to regain their bearings.

These events determine what comes before and after. In some ways, it’s scene-sequel writ large. One of the ways that these plots differ from others is the sense of anticipation: first of the First Corpse (because we know that this is going to be a murder mystery and so someone’s going to die) and then of the Reveal — everything after First Corpse is moving toward that. The reader knows it has to be there, and expects it.

The events occur at the Act boundaries and while they dominate the impact of the story, they are generally only a small portion of the text. So let’s go through the Acts.

Act 1: This is a setting of the stage, and has multiple functions: introducing the main players and the setting and building some tension. In a James novel this is usually a series of character sketches and conflicts in which the victim-to-be plays a major role. (In her novels, it’s often pretty easy to identify the victim halfway through Act 1) Her detectives may or may not make an appearance. The murderer should at least be mentioned. In a Stout novel that follows the TBP, this is usually a different case entirely — a theft, maybe, or blackmail. The reader gets lots of information about the crime-to-be but doesn’t have a basis yet for fitting anything in.

This is where the mystery writer CAN get a pass that other genre writers don’t: anticipation of the First Corpse gives the story inherent tension that must be built in other stories. A James or Christie or Parker reader knows they’ve been promised a corpse and can enjoy they ride until then. If you’re writing in multiple genres, you don’t get that pass because not all of your readers know what to expect. But even if you do get the pass, that doesn’t mean you have to use it. Stout’s books still frequently frequently kicked off with some Goodwin/Wolfe/Cramer personality conflict to catch the reader’s interest (and also distract them from the presentation of clues).

First Corpse: As expected, someone turns up dead and sets an investigation in motion. They may have been dead for some time, or they may have been preceded in death by another victim, but this is the discovery and the focus.

Act 2: The investigation of the murder gets underway. The story unfolds according to the logic of the investigation, centering primarily on the detectives, and the characters who appeared in Act 1 are seen in a new light. The reader has seen them before, even if the detective hasn’t, and watches for changes. The suspects are often formally (re)introduced, even though we’ve met them all already; this way the introductions actually stick — a neat trick that Patrick O’Brian uses too.

This part of the story is primarily reactive. Procedures are followed more than insight. The detective is identifying the hurdles that need to be crossed, but not actually crossing very many of them. Witnesses hold things back, and the reader generally knows it. The reader is more generous with fumbling at this stage. Sometimes the detective is right on the verge of a major discovery at the end of the second act, but…

Second Corpse: Someone else turns up dead, very often a prime suspect. It is this body that makes the plot a Two Body Plot, not just because of cardinality but because it represents a major failure. The detective has been slow and the villain quick. Often the second corpse had critical information that the detective failed to ask for in time, or which they failed to provide for some reason (they didn’t think it important, they wanted to exert some control over the villain, etc). The second corpse may have predeceased the first corpse, but being found second they play a different role in the story.

Act 3: This is the main part of the investigation, in which the detective starts driving the investigation through insight rather than procedure. They’re reeling after the second corpse, and probably rethinking a lot of things, but all the villain did was buy themselves time. The detective is regaining control, and the villain is in reaction mode.

In a TBP, the same person usually is responsible for both corpses; often some paragraph or two is spent explaining why this has to be the case, but sometimes the Two Murderer Theory is explored. But the reader is less patient with the detective at this stage (some readers will have guessed the solution!) and any blind alleys followed need to pay off sooner rather than later. Events are set in motion by both the killer and the detective, and the detective’s success (or trickery) raise the pressure on the off-stage villain. The detective forms and discards theories, but at the end of the third act must know the identity of the killer but typically not how to prove it. This paves the way for the…

Reveal (or Third Corpse): The detective and the killer finally, briefly, clash. In a James novel, very often the killer strikes again, and the reader has a moment of believing they’ve succeeded (hence “Third Corpse”), but they’re thwarted by the detective at the last minute — sometimes the detective is the intended third corpse, but usually not. In a Stout TBP novel, this is usually a trick played by Wolfe (often with Archie in the dark, and always with the reader in the dark) and nearly always a confrontation including multiple people and often the police.

A word about the reveal: it has been said, and I agree, that the optimal time for the reader to guess the identity of the killer is three paragraphs to a page ahead of the detective announcing the solution. Just enough time for the reader to be excited and proud of themselves, and not enough time to get bored waiting for the detective to catch up. That means that while the scene in which the reveal takes place might luxuriate in description or a gloating retelling of events, the reveal itself often needs to be expressed in a very short length of text.

Act 4: Although I called the previous event “the reveal”, it often is parsimonious in its explanations, keeping strictly to the identity of the killer and other sources of immediate tension. People may still have done suspicious things, and the detective may have acted mysteriously — these explanations come in Act 4. The characters we met in Act 1 get on with their lives. This is often a short act, but an important one in a James novel, where we’ve spent a great deal of time getting invested in the personal lives of some of the suspects. If this is part of a series, then there’s usually some long-term arc progression or wrap-up going on here, too (Dalgliesh’s romance and eventual marriage, for example).

And that’s it! It’s very simple, but you see it over and over because it’s such a useful starting point when planning a new murder mystery. (As James D. Macdonald says, “The oldest engines carry the heaviest freight.”) There’s a lot to play around with there, and filling in details about those seven parts will help you get at what you want out of your mystery.

If you’re still stuck, and this structure appeals to you as a starting point, I suggest focusing on First Corpse and Reveal first. Those are the two parts that get at the heart of the two relationships at the very heart of the story: The villain and the victim, and the villain and the detective. For the first relationship: Is the killing a vicious one? A desperate one? Is it clearing away the obstinate old order, or is Saturn devouring his children? For the second relationship: is this coming down to a physical confrontation? An elaborate trap? An elaborate trap that goes wrong? Is the villain tricked into confessing, or are they caught in the act of trying to silence that last witness?

Once you’ve got answers that make you happy (for now), think about how those will play out and what those decisions say about the characters involved. Other aspects and characters will flow from that. All through this process, keep a word processor window or a notebook open with the main parts and acts written on it, and jot notes as they occur to you. You may start thinking in terms of prerequisites: before this can happen, the stage must be arranged thusly, and I need a character in this position… It’s a bit like playing chess backward. Or you may start thinking in terms of themes and how variations on them can play out.

And of course, this is all a starting point: you’ll probably start itching to make changes to that structure as your story takes shape, and so you should. But if you don’t, and your first draft or final draft ends up exactly as above, don’t worry too much about it. Just: Tell a good story. Devise a good mystery. Start on your next one.


Posted by on 16 March, 2014 in Writing


Writing Advice from P.G. Wodehouse

I recommend the Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction” series to anyone interested in writing (and many people who aren’t). Interviews with talented writers are not always everything they’re cracked up to be, and often the advice is inapplicable or just plain wrong — even the most talented people don’t always have a good sense of what their actual process is, or which parts of their process work — but I almost always find them interesting, and I frequently find them useful.

I’ve been reading their interview with P.G. Wodehouse, now about 40 years old, and it really is fascinating. In particular, this bit struck me:


If you were asked to give advice to somebody who wanted to write humorous fiction, what would you tell him?


I’d give him practical advice, and that is always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel—if it’s a novel of action—depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, “Which are my big scenes?” and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, “This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I’m such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,” you’re sunk. If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.

There are a couple pieces of advice in there. The first bit, about the dialogue, is interesting to me. Wodehouse’s first-person narratives are charmingly written and often just a joy to read. But the dialogue is what pushes the plot, particularly when the narrator is already comfortable and disinclined to be budged.

The second part, I think is true of many stories. For me, this is most frequently a problem with my villains. Once the protagonist gets going, I have a tendency to have my villains hunker down and wait to be thwarted. No serious actor would stand for that, of course.

The third part… well, that doesn’t apply to me yet, of course ;) But I’ve been leaning harder on my first person narrations, and it’s good to remember that the story underneath has to work even when I’m at my most entertaining. I suppose that’s why I like having a mystery plot as a canvas: it forces the plot forward when I’m otherwise inclined to get into the weeds.

The rest of the interview is by turns interesting and entertaining. Wodehouse seems have lived a rather unexamined life, to be honest, and his comments about his life during World War II are worth thinking about. There’s also this exchange later, which I think any Wodehouse fan will find unsurprising:


How about the Beats? Someone like Jack Kerouac, for instance, who died a few years ago?


Jack Kerouac died! Did he?




Oh . . . Gosh, they do die off, don’t they?

And then, well, I’ll just leave this here before I go, apropos of nothing:


I don’t think writers get along very well with one another.


No, I don’t think they do, really.

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Posted by on 21 February, 2014 in Writing


Sale: Ransomware

To Daily Science Fiction, a pro market that sends its stories out free by email. I expect to see it out in the next few months.


Posted by on 20 February, 2014 in Writing


Story Up: Still Life, With Oranges

At Lakeside Circus, a new market that opened this past fall. A strange little piece, but I rather like it.

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Posted by on 11 January, 2014 in Writing


2013 Awards Eligibility Post

Well, since all the cool kids are doing it… If you happen to be reading for this year’s spec fic awards, I had three new stories come out this year, all eligible in the Short Story category.

Tumbleweeds and Indelicate Questions from Nature magazine’s Futures section (Feb 2013)

Mr. Yuk, On the Premises Issue #19 (Mar 2013)

At the Old Folks Home at the End of the World from Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (Nov 2013, requires subscription)

Edited to add:

Still Life, With Oranges from Lakeside Circus (Nov 2013) (Although the story was posted to their website in 2014, it went out to subscribers in 2013)

I am also in my first year of Campbell eligibility, along with a number of fine authors whose work you should also be reading. It’s cold outside; stay indoors and read their work and they will keep your brain warm by filling it with marvelous, terrible things.

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Posted by on 7 January, 2014 in Writing


2013 in Review

Happy new year, everyone! I am so glad that 2013 is finally done. It’s been an exceptionally busy year for me at home, at work, and writing, and I’m looking forward to a quiet 2014 in which to sort it all out.

Writing-wise, it’s been a pretty good year for me. I wrote: 1 novella, 4 short stories, and 6 or 7 flash stories. In terms of what’s working versus what’s not, my shorter and weirder stories have outsold longer more traditional pieces, and there’s been a marked difference in response between my first-person and third-person stories. I’m told that Jay Lake has a theory that writers’ skills are like a collectable card game, and every writer gets one or two free. I came to the conclusion that I got first person voice as one of mine, and I’ve been leaning hard on it this year for some pretty good results so far.

My first two SFWA pro sales were published this year: Tumbleweeds and Indelicate Questions in February, and At the Old Folks Home at the End of the World in November. That makes this my first year of Campbell eligibility. My submissions were way down in 2013 (36 compared to 52 in 2012, 7 of them reprint subs) but I still made four sales, two of them stories I wrote this year, and one reprint. Not counting the five subs still out, that’s a roughly 10% sales rate. This is not terrible for where I’m at in my career right now, but I would like to improve it through a combination of writing better stories and being smarter about where I sub.

This was supposed to be the year in which I put the finishing touches on my novel A Death in Deep Space and started shopping it around. …oops. I got blindsided by the sheer amount of work involved in selling a house and moving across the state, and then in revising over the summer to show it to a friend I realized that a significant chunk of Act IV just didn’t work, tore it out and, um, got stuck and haven’t replaced it yet. (On the plus side: this was partly from coming to the understanding that I had been unconsciously mimicking the five-act structure of many of my favorite mysteries, which was a tremendously useful thing to finally recognize!)

Anyway: I didn’t have as much time this year, but I feel like I used it more efficiently. I didn’t write as many stories, but the ones I did were better, and my sales rate is going up. That’s not a bad place to be going into 2014!


Posted by on 3 January, 2014 in Writing


My Arisia 2014 Schedule

For those of you attending Arisia next month in Boston, the schedule is up and I’m on it. I’m going to be pretty busy and probably not available to go out to dinner (have I mentioned how excited I am about the food trucks? SUCH a good idea), but I expect to enjoy the heck out of it. Here are my scheduled panels:


Critiquing Someone Else’s Work — Writing, Panel — 1hr 15min — Bulfinch (3W) 10:00am

So you’ve joined a writers’ group! It can be a big aid to writing, not only in the critiques you get, but in those you give. Still, there are pitfalls. What are some of the ways that critiques can go wrong, or right?

Let’s Rule the Universe! — Literature, Panel — 1hr 15min — Faneuil (3W) 8:30pm

The galactic-spanning empire is one of the most common and long-lasting tropes in speculative fiction. How would such an empire actually work? Could communication ever be instantaneous? How would economics develop? These panelists will poke at the practical worldbuilding issues of such empires while citing classic literature and media examples.


Sherlock Showdown — Media, Panel — 1hr 15min — Paine (2) 1:00pm

Sherlock on the BBC. Elementary on CBS. And Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. Three high-profile adaptations. But who’s the best Sherlock? The top Watson? The most menacing Moriarty? We’ll talk about what makes all three very different takes so entertaining.

How to Disagree Better — Fan Interest, Panel — 1hr 15min — Douglas (3W) 5:30pm

Someone is wrong on the Internet! Discussion of new and sometimes challenging ideas, is one of the hallmarks of fandom and any free society. We can do a better job of arguing and disagreeing with each other. How do we do this? What tools do we have for sorting out those arguments and finding where the areas of agreement might be hiding? This is not a plea for everyone to agree, this is about how to disagree honestly and respectfully, in ways that allow us to remain a community.

Computers, Internet, and Human Memory — Science, Panel — 1hr 15min — Bulfinch (3W) 8:30pm

The priests of Mnemosyne used to complain that the new fad of writing was destroying students’ abilities to memorize epic poetry. Today, we cannot remember dozens of peoples’ phone numbers, as we always call or text them by name. Search engines give us answers so easily, we don’t seem to remember anything ourselves. Or is the whole situation weirder than that?

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Posted by on 31 December, 2013 in Writing


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Story Up: At the Old Folks Home at the End of the World

Went up today at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (requires subscription). The accompanying illustration by Wayne Miller really is lovely, and I had a surprise: my story is also read aloud by Mr. Card himself (the link is on the sidebar of the above-linked page, halfway down).

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Posted by on 23 November, 2013 in Writing


Dear Searcher: Measuring and Controlling

One of the most popular search terms for people coming to this blog is, “if you can measure it, you can control it,” in just those words. They go to a page on this site with a different (correct) formulation: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t control it.” There is a critical difference between the two (in a way that’s related to writing as well).

There’s a whole class of things that we can measure but we can’t control. Probably more of them than the things we can control, really. We can measure the position of the moon, but nothing to change it. Measurability may be a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition.

The trouble is, the proper formulation doesn’t quite get it right either. As stated, measurability is not actually a necessary condition. There are lots of things we can control that we can’t measure: just ask someone swinging blindfolded at a piñata, or walking through an empty room in the dark.

In James Harrington’s original phrase, when he says “control” he really means “intentional control”, and is getting at improvement. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” is a more broadly defensible statement, and more true to Harrington’s original point than the piece that gets quoted. Of course, “Measure” is a tough word, too. Usually it means metrics: something you can convert into numbers. You have a number representing some aspect of your product or process, and you can interpret that number so that you know that one value is good and another bad. Say, number of light bulbs broken out of so many manufactured. You can then experiment and try various things, and then judge success or failure according to how that number moves.

There are statistical tools as well that will help you determine whether that number really did move. Chebyshev’s equality tells us how often we can expect values some number of standard deviations away from the process norm, and if we see lots of values well away from the mean, then we can perhaps conclude that we have changed the underlying process to one that will in the long run break fewer light bulbs. (To my writing friends, this has a direct correlation to Jay Lake’s Bathtub Theory of Writing Success.)

But proof is not always numerical in nature. Sometimes it’s simply boolean: I had test cases that code needed to match, and they did. Or I had a story that I wrote, and it sold. More often, it is qualitative. Oftener still, the real ultimate measurable goal (selling stories or software, or getting follow-on research funds) is just too remote to be immediately useful. Even when I can’t put a number on success, though, I can still evaluate success or failure, so long as I spent thought beforehand on what would constitute success. If I wait until I’m done, well, I’m only human: the temptation is great to define success such that what I just produced qualifies.

In my day job that’s usually what it means, because while I can’t put a number on code or research, I can’t just take on a task, noodle at it a while, and then throw confetti and declare the task succeeded. I have to defend it, and have ready answers to the question, “How do you know you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?” And sometimes a single day’s success, or even several weeks’ success, is not sufficient proof.

Programmers have it easier in this regard than writers do: even when unit testing and similar procedures can’t be applied (such as with UI programming) it’s possible to write scripts and workflow descriptions to describe how something ought to work. Art students drawing or painting from life can visually compare their canvas to their subject. Researchers and writers have it a little tougher: both are carving out new ground (well, new-ish) and it is not only tempting to define success such that the current effort passes, but there are more opportunities for it. (This is one of the reasons I’ve found my current research project to be in some ways refreshing: the project sponsor insisted on having a description at the beginning of the process for what success would look like, and while living up to that has been difficult, it has kept things focused)

This is also, I think, why I have come down so firmly as a writer on the side of outlining. The story I’m working on right now has a two-page outline describing the story as I want it to unfold, but also the effect I want each scene to have. In mysteries, for example, it can be very useful to have a specific effect in mind: “At this point the reader should think the butler did it.” Making that explicit is also a way of evaluating the goals themselves. No mystery reader is ever going to believe that the mysterious death really was an accident; listing that as the goal for a scene is an opportunity to scrub that and pick something else. Training myself to write outlines in this way has been difficult: very often I’m just writing the skeleton of a story instead. But when I manage it, it makes the writing process so much easier.

Finally, I want to point out that determining whether I achieved a goal is a separate thing from determining whether what I produced is *good*. Much of my work is good, even when it fails at its task: solid, elegant code that does not crash, but that nevertheless does not achieve my goals. I would say, in fact, that one of the biggest struggles in moving from a student programmer/researcher to a professional (and, as well, from a hobbyist writer to a professional writer) was in coming to the realization that “good” is not good enough. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

It might be briefly depressing to think that “good is not good enough” but that turns out to be the key to improvement. By assigning goals to your code or your scenes or any other effort, you can know in what way you need to be good, and in what way you need to be better. Even simple practice sessions can (and arguably should) be goal-driven. If measurement is the key to improvement, then goals are the locks.

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Posted by on 11 November, 2013 in Writing


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