I Ought to Write Romance; a Statistically Bankrupt Analysis

I used to study and write poetry, a fact that is relevant to this post in two ways. First, it helps to explain why the statistical methodology to follow is so shoddy, so truly terrible that it would make any self-respecting statistician gouge out her own eyes, Oedipus-style. Second, this post helps to explain, in small part, one of the reasons I stopped writing poetry and started with the epic fantasy.

Every year Goodreads hosts the “Readers’ Choice” awards, which the site bills as “the only major book award decided by readers.” That claim depends, of course, on what you consider “major”, but with nearly two million votes cast in 2013 competition, it’s fair to say that Goodreads is running a big competition. There are twenty categories, with fifteen books nominated in each. I’m thrilled to be nominated in two categories: Best Fantasy and Best Goodreads Debut Author. I also thought this was a perfect opportunity for someone who hasn’t done math since high school to do some math.

Specifically, I was curious to see if there was any difference in the average number of reader ratings per book by category. These ratings have nothing to do with the Choice awards – they’re just the number of ratings each book has accrued since its release. Still, it seemed like the nominations offered a sort of snapshot of each genre.

Of course, there are problems. The books are released at different points in the year, for one thing, and obviously books released in January have more ratings than those released two weeks ago. It’s very possible that readers of certain genres might be more likely to use Goodreads than others. Ratings might not translate well to sales. I accept my D- for data analysis.

Still, check this shit out:

Category        Average Number of Ratings per Nominated Book

YA SF/F:                    23,726

Romance:                   14,871

Fantasy:                     9,957

Fiction:                      9,554

SF:                              5,269

Non-Fiction:             2,591

Poetry:                       242

The discrepancy is pretty astounding. It seems to suggest that writers of Young Adult Fantasy and Sci-Fi are just absolutely killing it, sales-wise, compared to anyone writing what we might call (for lack of a better term) Adult-Oriented Sci-Fi and Fantasy. The YA title with the most ratings was Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire, with 73,629 ratings. This is half the number of ratings all fifteen nominated adult fantasy titles combined. The only other genre that even comes close to these numbers is Romance.

That said, I think this is good news for those of us writing non-YA fantasy. I, for one, am delighted to see the YA market so robust. I like to think that when these kids get older, they’ll keep reading fantasy.

And then, of course, there’s the plight of non-fiction. After the breakout success of such books as The Perfect Storm, and Longitude, I expected non-fiction to have a much higher readership. Maybe it does in other years. Maybe non-fiction readers just hate goodreads. I dunno. Again, the holes in my method here are massive, but these numbers seem bleak.

Finally, poetry. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school writing poetry that I started to really understand it would be almost impossible to make money in the enterprise. I admit that this was pretty late for what should have been an obvious realization, but I love poetry. I still write the occasional poem. My son and I recite poems before bed every night. If you want to make a living as a writer, however, and I do, it’s not a viable path (unless you couple it with teaching or prostitution or something). Fortunately, my other great literary love, the writing of epic fantasy, offers more possibilities.

I’m delighted about the nomination of The Emperor’s Blades. Both slates (fantasy and debut) include some incredibly stiff competition, but it’s exciting to find my name in the fray alongside the likes of Rothfuss and Sanderson. I hope some of you wander over to the site, check out some of the categories and titles for yourself, and let me know what you make of all this data. Where have I gone horribly and wildly wrong? Or do you think that, warts and all, this is actually a pretty accurate picture of the current publishing world? Finally, please vote, either for The Emperor’s Blades or another writer you’re excited about. I love doing this, I’m incredibly grateful to be making a living at it, and I couldn’t do it – no writer could – without you.

Nebraska Stumps Newton; Three Types of Literary Time

Anyone who’s ever driven across Nebraska knows that Newton was wrong. Not about gravity, of course. Gravity is still a thing (sort of), but about his notions of absolute space and time. Newton believed that both space and time were the intrinsic scaffolding of the universe, that they were present even in the theoretical absence of anything else, like some sort of invisible graph paper and silently ticking stopwatch. In his words:

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external…”

Leibniz thought this was a pile of horseshit, and ever since Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the consensus has swung heavily toward Leibniz. Of course, if Newton had just bothered to drive across Nebraska, he would have understood that, despite the neat longitudinal grid of the map, the distance between Omaha and Ogallala expands until it is nearly infinite, while the time you get to spend in Las Vegas when you finally cross the country is always criminally short.

Things are even more complex inside the pages of a fantasy novel (or any novel, for that matter) where we encounter not just expanding and contracting time, but three simultaneously occurring and overlapping time frames.


Time Frame One: Book Time. This is the time frame experienced by the characters inside the story. If the main character wakes up in the morning and is pecked to death by penguins that afternoon, the book covers about eight hours.

Time Frame Two: Reading Time. The duration of Book Time need not match the time a reader must spend, ass in chair, reading the book. An eight hundred page novel could cover a single hour (probably a really miserable hour), and yet it will take a reader thirty or so to complete.

Time Frame Three: Real Life Time. When you find a really wonderful book, the sort that involves sitting down at 6 PM, reading straight through while pissing into an empty Gatorade bottle, Reading Time and Real Life Time are nearly synonymous. More frequently, however, it takes a matter of days or weeks, Real Life Time, to get in the necessary hours of Reading Time to finish a novel. This happens because of a) other demands and b) running out of Gatorade bottles.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to spend twenty hours over three weeks completing a book that spans twenty years. It can be helpful, even crucial for authors to realize that the emotional responses and psychological developments of their characters are taking place out of phase with those of the reader.

For example, if Jessica sneaks into Jimmy’s house on page twenty-five and takes a dump on his pillow, both the reader and Jimmy could be expected to feel a visceral revulsion toward and (unless the attack is warranted) distrust of Jessica. If the book leaps forward ten years, however, between pages twenty-five and thirty (probably through a section break or chapter break), Jimmy’s feelings toward Jessica have had ten years to evolve. The reader’s have had about five minutes.

I felt this acutely when reading Ken Follett’s wonderful novel Pillars of the Earth. The book spans decades, but I read it in days. As a result, my feelings about outrages committed at the book’s start were still burning hot, even when the feelings of certain characters against whom those outrages were committed had cooled, or changed. I had days to process events they had decades to absorb. Despite having loved the book (I recommend it whole-heartedly), the ending left me feeling a little confused, a little left out, largely due to this disjunction between my emotions and those of all the characters.

Of course, an author can use the overlapping time frames in her favor as well. One trick that comes across particularly well is rehabilitation of dubious or downright evil characters. There’s a guy in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, a character we hate in book one. Martin later tries to bring us around to this dude, to make us see 1) that we may have misjudged him initially and 2) that he’s changed. This sleight-of-hand certainly worked for me, and seems to have worked for most readers, and it leans heavily on the fact that, for most of us, years and years of Real Life Time have passed between the character’s initial evil-doing and his later rehabilitation. In Book Time, however, it’s less than a year. It’s the obverse of the situation mentioned above – we, the readers, are ready to forgive, while most of the characters, understandably, are not.

In the end, the most important conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that if Leibniz hadn’t spent so much time dicking around inventing calculus, he could have written some bad-ass fantasy novels.

A Lover, a Piglet, and a Deep Hole; or, Three Types of Tension

I propose an experiment:

Step One: Acquire a garden hose, a stopwatch, two air horns, a terrified piglet, a wheelbarrow filled with manure, and a hole in the ground ten feet deep and six feet across.

Step Two: Trick your wife or husband, boyfriend or girlfriend, romantic partner or best friend, into stepping into the hole.

Step Three: Gently lower the piglet into the hole.

Step Four: Join both of them in the hole.

Step Five: Explain, once you are both at the bottom of the pit, that you’d like to discuss a subject on which the two of you (the two people, not you and the piglet) have historically disagreed.

Step Six: Arrange things such that, as soon as the discussion begins, another set of people begins filling the hole with water, blowing the air horns, and pelting you with manure.

Step Seven: Allow the piglet to race around the bottom of the pit throughout.

Step Eight: Use the stopwatch to carefully time how long it takes the two of you (again, the two people, not you and the piglet) to come to some sort of agreement or compromise on the issue of historical disagreement.

I’ll admit that it’s just possible that these conditions might lead your friend or partner to submit instantly and absolutely, conceding his or her own side of the debate just to get out of the fucking hole already. More likely, however, much more likely, is that something ugly is going to happen at the bottom of that pit, something far removed from rational discourse and compromise, and you’d just better hope to hell that the air horns and the squealing piglet drown out the screaming.

Why would you do this? Well, to become a better writer, obviously.

This is, after all, what you have to do with your characters all the time. Take the famous scene from The Fellowship of the Ring in which Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and the rest attempt to cross the Redhorn Pass in the shadow of the great peak, Caradhras. The fellowship is clearly threatened by weather and rockfall, but the threat doesn’t end there. The strain of the conditions leads to the disastrous decision to turn back, to attempt to cross beneath rather than over the mountains, through the Mines of Moria. One can imagine this discussion going differently had it taken place back, say, in Rivendell, when everyone was well rested and well fed. In the cold and wind, however, battling against the evil of Caradhras, the social fabric of the group begins to fray. There’s no piglet, of course, and no air horns, but close enough.

Tolkien knows, of course, that there are three primary sorts of literary tension: the psychological, the social, and the environmental. These are my terms, not his, and I’ll give a set of examples:

Psychological Tension: Jocelyn has lived most of her life ashamed at having fled from the Goblin Horde that murdered her family years earlier. This shame leads her to take foolish risks in all sorts of situations. The tension that results is primarily a product of her psychology, at least so far.

Social Tension: Jocelyn is travelling with Matt. Matt is an anxious person. His palms sweat at the prospect of riding a spirited horse, let alone facing down a Goblin Horde. Jocelyn’s constant risk-taking leads him to a grim conclusion: she’s going to get them both killed… if he doesn’t kill her first. Matt’s psychological weakness are exacerbated by the people around him, by the social tension that results.

Environmental Tension: Jocelyn and Matt might actually scrape by if all they need to do is walk down the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Nothing would provoke Jocelyn into risk-taking, and Matt, therefore, would be able to keep a lid on his murderous desperation. When we pluck them from Santa Cruz, however, and plop them down in a different environment – in the cellars, say, of the Palace of the Goblin King – things are unlikely to end well.

The three types of conflict are sometimes treated as though they’re separate. You hear people complain regularly of the latest action flick: “It’s all just car chases and things blowing up.” While I happen to love car chases and things blowing up, the point can be a valid one. Environmental tensions that do nothing to exacerbate social tensions are hollow and bombastic. If the characters start getting along better when the city bursts into flames, you (the author) have a real problem.

Likewise, social tensions that don’t chafe against raw psychological tensions are pointless. Imagine: Jesse makes fun of Jimmy’s ears. Jimmy, a level-headed and self-respecting young man, ignores him. Not much of a story there.

Give Jimmy a psychological weakness or wound, however, and we’re off to the races. Let’s say his ex-wife divorced him, saying, “You look like a goblin with your tiny face and huge, stupid ears.” Let’s say he really took that to heart. When Jesse makes his crack, Jimmy’s going to have him hanging over the Brooklyn Bridge by his ankles.

This kind of dynamic plays out all the time in my favorite sport: adventure racing. Teams drop out of races all the times, and at first blush, it usually looks as though it was the environment – the freezing rain, the endless bog, the capsized boats – that did them in.

Closer observation, however, usually reveals something else: the environmental difficulties irritate social tensions (John is sick to death of Jill telling him how to paddle the fucking boat), which are themselves almost always based on psychological issues (John was worried from the get-go that he’d be shown up by Jill, and sure enough, she’s proving far, far tougher than he is). The three types of tension meet in a perfect storm.

The teams, on the other hand, made up of happy people with good senses of humor, women and men who can work hard without taking themselves too seriously, usually endure with equanimity and even laughter the very worst of environmental tensions.

“Literary fiction” (whatever the hell that is) often (but certainly not always) eschews environmental tension as superficial or gaudy. We get tight little portraits of depressed men and women staring at blue jays while drinking themselves to death. Or whatever. Epic fantasy, though, is epic for a reason. It’s great to have a group of unhappy, distrustful people, but if you can put them on a rocky ledge above a gorge with a thousand hungry wolves on their trail and raging wildfires ahead, why wouldn’t you? Also, it never hurts to throw in a piglet.

Lesson (sort-of) Learned

Well, seven years after I wrote a scene in which a young monk is whipped while trying to paint a thrush, I can finally say it: The Emperor’s Blades is out on the shelves. Oddly, the money-laden dump truck driven by attractive fans has not yet arrived in the driveway, but maybe that happens tomorrow.

I’m a slow learner, but even for slow learners seven years is enough time to pick up a few lessons. Here’s what I’ve got:

1. It is never a good idea to drink five cups of coffee before noon.

2. That scene you spent a week and a half on, the one you thought was going to be the psychological pivot for an entire act? Yeah, it’s crap. Cut it.

3. When you find a brilliant beta reader, marry her. It’s the only way to ensure she’ll see the project through to the end.

4. Back up your fucking hard drive. Back up your fucking hard drive, you idiot. Back up your fucking hard drive.

5. If you dress zombies up with a fancy new name, they are still just zombies. Cut ‘em.

6. One beer might help the creative process. One.    O. N. E.    1.

7. You think you write clean prose? Prose that will leave the copyeditor with little to do? Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha.

8. When you start cursing and poking at the screen, it’s time to get up and go for a run.

9. If you’re still worked up about whatever wasn’t working when the run is over, the run is not over. Go do the other loop.

10. Tweeting is not writing.

11. Facebooking is not writing.

12. Google+ing is not writing.

13. Blogging is sort of writing, but you’re not gonna get a book out of it.

14. That whole plot line with the Urghul girl as a point of view character? The one that’s a hundred thousand words long? Yeah. Cut it.

15. If you make eye contact with the dogs, they might stop chasing you. Or they might not.

16. Always listen to your agent. She is smarter than you. She is more experienced than you. Without your agent you would be like a baby deer wandering around inside the lion cage at the zoo. Except you are not cute like a baby deer.

17. Your friends, for reasons known only to them, actually believe you can pull this off.

18. Your baby is probably screaming because you’re not writing fast enough.

19. Remember when you didn’t know what an editor did? No? That’s because now that you’ve realized your editor does everything, the thought of putting out a book without him is inconceivable.

20. Stop typing and make a sandwich already. A healthy human can go thirty days without eating, but it doesn’t make for very good prose.

21. Just because you wrote eight thousand words in one day doesn’t mean you’re allowed to keep any of them.

22. Stop trying to come up with titles. Just stop. Stop.

23. The book has your name on it, but without your wife’s help at literally every step of the process, it would just be a pile of scribbled-on pages like Russell Crowe’s crazy papers in A Beautiful Mind.

24. Even if the book is a steaming turd, it doesn’t matter. You have wonderful friends and wonderful family, people who don’t really want to handle a steaming turd, but will do so if necessary and keep loving you at the same time.

25. That scene with the monk? The first one you wrote seven years ago? Yeah. It’s crap. Cut it.

The Leaping and the Cowering

With just one week until the release of The Emperor’s Blades, I alternate between leaping joyously through the sunshine in slow motion and cowering in the corner shitting my pants. Sometimes I manage to feed myself. One thing I haven’t been doing a lot of is writing articles for this site, mainly because I’m busy writing articles for every single other site on the internet. So that you know I haven’t bee allowed out of my writing cage, I’m attaching links to two of the more recent pieces.

Giant Hawks and Mountain Bikes: An exploration of the links between Adventure Race training and the writing of epic fantasy. If you’re unfamiliar with Adventure Racing (as just about everyone in the world is), you can get a little glimpse of the bizarre sufferings involved from this post.

Defeating the Crapster: For a long time, I thought tactics and strategy were the same thing, both vaguely synonymous with “sneaky plans to be used in board games, marriage, or war.” Turns out (as it often does) that I was wrong. This post takes a look at the differences, and the relevance of strategic thinking to the writing of fantasy (or, indeed, any genre).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my cowering.