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Do You Deserve More Success?

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Let me preface what comes next by saying that, by any objective measure, I am a successful author. I have an audience. I sell books. I sell a lot more books than the average author sells.

It’s not enough to make a living, but there are names for the kinds of people who just write books for the money. And none of them are nice. There’s a lot of truth in the saying, “is it’s not possible to make a living writing, it’s only possible to make a killing.” Publisher’s Weekly reported that the average non-fiction book sold 250 copies a year. Fiction has to be less. I moved 3,000 of the Merchant Adventurer in a day. (Bookbub!) And while we all lust for more success, I am immensely grateful for what I have and where I am.

There is a quote from a play by Joseph Addison that has stuck with me. I picked it up from the book 1776 by David McCullough. It was a line that people like Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Franklin quoted to each other a lot in letters.

‘Tis not in mortals to command success, But we’ll do more, Sempronius,—We’ll deserve it.

It’s a lovely, stoic sentiment. And one well-suited to the lunacy of attempting to steal a country from the most powerful nation the Earth had ever known. And it begs the question, do I deserve more any success than I have?

To be totally honest, I think not. I can see stupid mistakes. I can see laziness (who can look back and say the could not have done more?) and distraction., I can also see someone who has not become an asshole Dad and husband in pursuit of his goals. But more than that, I can see ways that I have worked too hard in the wrong direction.

No shit, I think I have written too many books and too few outlines.

One must be driven to write a first book. And if had known how hard it would be to write the first one, I never would have written a second. But having made it through the first one — and damn if that didn’t take long enough. I started noodling ideas for stories in 1995. How to Succeed in Evil went live on Kindle in 2012. I am a tough opponent. — the next was easier.

With everything that I have written so far, there has been a mania. A fury. A feeling that demons were chasing me and I needed to write very fast. That I was already so far behind that — anyway, you get the idea. So rather than figuring out the story, I jumped right in and got lost. Or stuck. Or blocked.

This is not a pantser v. plotter discussion. Both ways obviously work. But if you rush or your are too nervous, nothing works very well. When you come to problem in a story you have to stop and think. And, upon reflection, I could have done that better and faster.

So the prescription for this, for me, is to write more waaaaay more outlines. Not quick, dashed out things, but really good plans for books. Make sure the conflict and the resolution is right. I can flesh out characters. I can craft witty lines. I can change the whole thing on the fly. But, right now, it feels that cranking out story architecture will help me get better and write faster in my increasingly limited time.

In one sense deserving more success is either writing better books, or writing more of them. I think I can get a little bit faster and a whole lot better. Better is what drives me anyway. But, in another sense, I think Guillermo del Toro was right when he said,

“Success is fucking up on your own terms.”

I certainly get to enjoy the luxury of doing that.

Five Fundamental Forms of Writing

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I’ve had this idea rolling around in my head for a while. Everything that has been written, from a ransom note to Shakespeare to a technical manual to the blog post can be broken down into just a few fundamental forms.

  1. Story
  2. Argument
  3. Instructions
  4. Dialog
  5. Summary

So, take Romeo and Juliet, or the latest episode of your favorite T.V. show. They both are stories told primarily with dialog. And they both start out with a summary. “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,” and “Previously on…” are really the same thing.

Plato used the character of Socrates in dialog to make and explore philosophical arguments.

A parable or fable is an argument hidden in a story.

I am making an argument by providing examples, and providing summaries the forms by way of definition. In fact, all of my recent blog post are a special kind of argument with myself — an essay — which takes its name from the French verb essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt”. I’m literally trying these arguments out. (The fact that I am now doing this in public means I’m either brave or foolish. Perhaps both.)

Story

Story form is hard to pin down. We are creatures of story and it’s the form by which we most easily understand things. Even when this understanding is in error. What are those flashes in the sky? Oh, that’s guy named Zeus. He gets angry and throws them.

I think it’s hard for us to understand story form for the same reason that fish have difficulty understanding water — we’re immersed in it. But, for my essay, I will use Pixar’s description.

Once upon a time there was a _______.

Every day she would ______.

Until one day _________ happened.

Because of that she _________.

And then __________.

Because of that _________.

Until finally, she _____________.

Argument

Argumentative theory is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, this is writing that makes a case and attempt to persuade or prove.

Instructions

Writing good instructions is very hard. Right now, I think this is the best way to structure instructions. Often time we skip the first step and it’s always a mistake. To explain a game you should start with the object, then talk about the rules. As explainers or instructors, it’s too easy to get lost in the minutia. But starting with the goal gives the reader or student a conceptual hook on which to hang all of the information that follows.

  1. End Goal
  2. Important Warnings
  3. Required Components
  4. Steps (1..n)

Dialog

A spoken interchange. But I think this category (maybe it needs a different name) also encompasses monologues. A character is having a chat with themselves or a party or entity that can’t respond.

“Who’s on first?”
“That’s right.”
“What’s the man’s name?”
“Who.”
“The man on first base!”
“Who.”
“The first baseman!”

Summary

Biggest thing first. Then supporting points.

Less like this:

For the last 150 years, the Galactic Empire has pushed the frontiers of weapons technology. Malicious will, plus a limitless Research and Development budget, has resulted in the construction a fully-functional weapon of planet destruction. Grimly named ‘The Death Star,’ this is the most significant strategic issue facing the Rebel Alliance. This paper will explore our options for dealing with this horrible new weapon of oppression.

More like this:

The Death Star is very big and very powerful, but it has a fatal flaw. It won’t be easy to destroy, but it is possible. This document will show you how. (many Bothans died to bring you this memo)

Continuing to Think

Try my scheme on for size and see if it fits. Can you think of any other forms I’ve missed.

One of my questions is, what about poetry? It’s gotta be a fool’s game to try to contain and reduce the rare power of great poetry, but I’ll go out an a limb and say that lot of it fits. It’s just that poetic expression, for me, is always pushing the limits of what meaning can be contained in words.

Here’s a bunch of very good, but very different poems to try on for size.

The Second Coming — Yeats
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — Stevens
Hope is the Thing with Feathers — Dickinson
Epitaph on Tyrant — Auden
Jabberwocky — Carroll
Bluebird — Bukowski
Ready to Kill — Sandburg