In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by Jack Ward for a spirited debate about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Does Campbell’s opus really hold the key to writing satisfying stories? Jack thinks so, but Rob and Don aren’t so sure, and this leads to a long discussion involving comparative mythology, newspaper comic strips, 1970’s vampire hunting reporters, and more sitcom references than an 80’s flashback! All this, and Don’s unhealthy fixation with the obscure scifi comedy Quark are waiting for you in this, the 35th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m fascinated by story structure, and recently I’ve been probing the depths of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. The Story Circle was Harmon’s way to take Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and make it into something practical but still all encompassing. This isn’t new, Christopher Vogler did something similar in his famous memo, which he later turned into The Writer’s Journey, and other writers have done their own takes as well, such as Chris Woo’s fascinating take on it. This is possible because Campbell wasn’t writing a book about writing, but a book about comparative mythology, so he left the more practical applications of his work to others.
In any case, I’ve taken to Harmon’s Story Circle for its simplicity and practicality for writers. I won’t reiterate the details whole thing here (read about it on his original Channel 101 posts, which start here, but this is the most important one), but you can watch this video which covers the points of the thing pretty nicely.
So basically in simplest form it looks like this:
1 – You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – Need (but they want something)
3 – Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – Search (adapt to it)
5 – Find (find what they wanted)
6 – Take (pay its price)
7 – Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – Change (now capable of change)
Which is pretty good, and covers a lot of ground. But, as I was trying it out with different stories, I realized something- it actually resembles another story plotting approach utilized by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. Now theirs, which I covered here, is a lot simpler, as it’s basically just about turning story outlines into series of cause and effect relationships using words like BUT, AND SO/THEREFORE, and MEANWHILE. But, I noticed that if we combine it with Harmon’s Circle, we end up with…
1 – OPEN ON You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – BUT Need (but they want something)
3 – AND SO Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – BUT Search (adapt to it)
5 – AND SO Find (find what they wanted)
6 – BUT Take (pay its price)
7 – AND SO Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – THUS Change (now capable of change)
And what do you know? It works! We have a story structure of cause and effect relationships that build up into a heroic journey. Who knew?
I’m still debating about the usefulness and nature of the Hero’s Journey monomyth as an all-encompassing story form, as you’ll hear about in an upcoming DNA podcast where writer Jack Ward and I go at it hammer and tong about the subject, but I will admit that this is a useful tool for writers. I’m always looking for ways to give my stories the solid underlying structure they need to become more satisfying for readers, and this is yet another tool in my writer’s toolkit to try out.
In this episode Don and Rob are joined by the awesome Ramon Meija of the litRPG podcast to talk about the biggest new genre you’ve probably never heard of- litRPGs. The three discuss the origins of this fascinating genre, what makes a litRPG, what books your should be reading, and how the litRPG genre reflects the world we live in today. All that, and how to write litRPGs in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs!
In this episode, Rob and Don sit down to discuss story structure. They explore the origins of the 3-act structure, discuss Chris Fox’s Write to Market strategy, and break down the Lester Dent Master Pulp Writing Formula and Michael Moorcock’s How to Write a Book in Three Days method. All this, and why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is really a ninja, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs!
My recent article where I was trying to unravel the mysteries of writing what I call Procedural Fiction and a conversation I had with my friend Don have left me thinking about the different ways writers use to structure stories. For most people, the Hero’s Journey is the one true method by which stories are written (an innocent enters a new world, is transformed by it, and returns a more mature and seasoned adult) and this is the basic structure which Hollywood follows today almost religiously. In fact, most of the Story Formulas you’ll find if you click that link up top are variants of the Hero’s Journey in one form or another.
However, that isn’t how all stories are structured. In fact, there are a lot of other ways to structure and tell a story that aren’t heroic journeys at all, or where the heroic journey element is merely a background to the real story.
So what different ways can we structure a story?
- Personal Transformations (hero’s journeys- see Dan Harmon’s Story Wheel)
- Situation Driven Stories (where the hero is a pawn of the plot/circumstances which surround them and pull them into the story – see the Lester Dent formula)
- Standard Procedurals (where the hero is following a series of preset steps to accomplish a goal – see the 12 Chapter Murder Mystery formula)
- Setting Driven Stories (where the story is really about the setting and the character’s place in it)
- Creativity Driven Stories (where the character is trying to create something, and the building of that thing forms the basis of the story- see my Procedurals article)
- Education Driven Stories (where the character is trying to learn something, and learning how to do that thing (for the character and audience) is the real focus of the story)
- Explorational Stories (where the hero is going out into a new world and the exploration of this new setting and its wonders is the focus of the story- see Procedurals article)
- Collection Based Stories (where the hero is trying to gather something or find something, and the act of collecting that thing and how it affects those who follow this path is the focus of the story- Gotta catch ’em all!)
I’m sure there are more, but I’m missing them, feel free to make suggestions in the comments. 🙂
Most of these will have a Heroic Journey/Personal Transformation story happening within them on the part of the character, but not always. It’s perfectly normal in a situation-driven story for the main character to change little or not at all by the end of the story, which is why it’s not a heroic journey.
The key is how the setting/world around the character is being used. If the setting is only there to further the growth of the character in a certain direction, then the story is a personal transformation story. However, if the setting or situation and how exploring it affects the character is the real focus, then it isn’t a personal transformation story but a story about the nature of that setting or situation.
Example- Bob the Cricketeer.
- In a Personal Transformation story, the game of Cricket is a vehicle to transform Bob into the person he needs to be to fulfill his deep inner needs.
- In an Education Driven Story, Bob’s entry into the world of Cricket is a vehicle to explore Cricket, anything Bob goes through is a natural side effect of exploring the game of cricket and is there to show how CRICKET affects its players, not how Bob grows as a person.
Both stories might end at the same point (or not) with Bob being a newly confident master of playing cricket, but they got there through different paths and the stories will be shaped and structured differently. The Education Driven Story could, however, end with Bob having learned nothing but skills and having made a few friends, and be exactly the same person at the story’s end, and it would still work as a story as long as the audience learned all there is to know about Cricket. However, if the point was Bob’s Personal Transformation and he didn’t transform, then that story would have failed.
I think it’s important to be aware of these differences because they give the writer more control over the story and how they can shape the story. If I try writing a Murder Mystery as a Hero’s Journey, for example, the audience will likely get confused and annoyed because they’re expecting a Procedural structure and I’m trying to give them something else. Likewise, it shows that not every story needs to be a hero’s journey, although many stories do make a nod toward that structure in one form or another. (Or at least go through the motions of a Heroic Journey without actually having any real change.)
What do people think? Am I on the right track here? Am I missing something? Feedback is welcome because I think there is more to it, but I’m still puzzling it out.
Heroic Journeys are pretty much the gold standard for modern fiction writing. The vast majority of stories written in any genre are heroic journeys wherein a weak/flawed character grows, develops, and eventually becomes a hero. The standard hero’s journey formula runs like this:
- Introduction of the flawed character and their world as it is.
- Character is forced out of that world by some event.
- Character embraces new situation and tries to overcome it.
- Character faces first big challenge and overcomes it.
- Character faces first major setback.
- Character recovers from major setback.
- Character faces antagonist/final challenge.
- Character wins and enters new world with their flaw overcome.
For those keeping track, the above would be the generic Heroic Journey plot of a 4-act story (each two parts being 1 “act”) and while there’s some variation, most stories run like this. An introduction, the character entering the new situation, the character learning on a “try/fail” cycle until they get strong enough to face their true enemy and walking out a newly minted hero at the other end.
That’s great for a standard heroic journey story, but does it work for a story where the main character is trying to build/create something? I refer to that kind of story as a type of “Procedural Fiction” because we’re watching the main character follow a procedure- a set of steps that need to followed in order to accomplish a goal.
I would say there are three kinds of procedural fiction:
- Standard Procedurals
- Creative Procedurals
- Exploratory Procedurals.
In a Standard Procedural, the character is following a set of steps which are already proscribed by someone else to accomplish a goal. The most common example of this is Police Procedurals (think CIS or NCIS, or The Mentalist, or whatever is popular this season) where the story is the characters following standard police procedure (or their variant thereof) as they try to investigate the murder of the week. The procedural structure of the steps they must follow give the story its form, and there really isn’t any heroic journey happening here, just witty main characters interviewing people and trying to sort through clues to reach a conclusion.
The key to a Standard Procedural is that they’re following a set of steps already created by someone else, whereas in a Creative Procedural this isn’t entirely true. In a Creative Procedural, a character is trying to build something or accomplish a goal which has a set of steps to complete it, but those steps may be somewhat general or vague. Unlike a Standard Procedural (first examine the body, then interview the witnesses, then look for motive, etc) a Creative Procedural is about a person trying to do a task which is as much an art as it is a science.
For example, let’s say a main character is trying to open a business, which is a common enough Creative Procedural in Japanese Dramas. (The Japanese adore Creative Procedurals with a passion, and produce a lot of them.) While there are known steps to starting a business like “write up a business plan”, “find a location”, “create a sign”, and others, there are also a lot of really vague elements like “find something you’re passionate about” or “master the skill that you’ll be selling to your clients” or “find a mentor” that there’s a lot of different directions and ways to go about it. Whether they’re trying to learn to play the piano at a master level, become a golf pro, become a manga writer/artist, master Poker, or whatever the main character’s goal is, a Creative Procedural is about them navigating the world of possibilities involved with following their chosen pursuit.
[Examples- Breaking Bad (TV), Game of Thrones (TV), Bakuman (manga), Team Medical Dragon (J-Drama), One Piece (TV Anime), most Xianxia fiction.]
Finally, there are Exploratory Procedurals. Simply put, an Exploratory Procedural is one where the main character is making up the procedure as they’re going along. They’re following vague logical steps to do what they’re doing, but they’re also breaking new ground or trying to do something that has never been done before in quite this way. A great example of an Exploratory Procedural is The Martian (movie, book, doesn’t matter) where we have a guy left behind on Mars after a failed attempt to set up a base who must figure out how to survive until someone can come help him. He has lots of knowledge, knows the scientific method, and has some clear goals he wants to reach, but there isn’t a set procedure he can follow to reach those goals- so he makes them up as he goes along in a series of trial and error attempts.
[Examples- The Walking Dead (TV), Overlord (TV Anime), Robinson Crusoe (book), The Monkey King (Chinese Classic), We Are Legion (We are Bob) (book), GATE (TV anime), The Cosmic Computer (book), Battlestar Galactica (TV)]
So, to summarize:
A Standard Procedural is about following a well paved road between cities.
A Creative Procedural is about following a series of paths and side trails through the forest to reach a destination.
An Exploratory Procedural is about making a path through the forest using a compass and a machete.
However, it’s about the try/fail cycle and how it’s implemented where the heroic journey and the procedural have a parting of the ways.
A Heroic Journey is built on setbacks (the try/fail cycle mentioned above) where the main character fails most of the time but succeeds just enough to keep them going until they reach their goal- each “failure” making them stronger through adversity. The drama in a heroic journey is about the character constantly struggling uphill, and even when they win they often lose in some way, unless it’s the big win at the end that makes the audience feel satisfied.
Procedurals, at least Creative Procedurals and Exploratory Procedurals, don’t work on a try/fail cycle. In fact, if anything, they work on a try/fail/succeed cycle, with the “succeed” part being a key difference between them and the Heroic Journey. In The Martian, for example, if the main character had failed at the end of each of his attempts to grow potatoes or jury rig the heating system, he would have died. Each of those were challenges he had to meet and succeed at to keep the story going. Just the same as a young Manga Artist needs to get a few hits under his belt or else he can’t get anyone to publish his work because he’s in an industry where you can only build on your successes.
So, if that’s the case, what would a structure for an Exploratory or Creative Procedural story look like?
- A character has a goal. (Usually created by some inner Need, but not always.)
- The character begins working toward achieving that goal and tries to solve the first roadblock they encounter, succeeds.
- The character is faced with a new more difficult problem, works to solve it (often building on what they learned the last time and acquiring new skills/knowledge/resources) and succeeds.
- The character is faced with a new even more difficult problem, works to solve it (often building on what they learned the last time and acquiring new skills/knowledge/resources) and succeeds.
- Repeat as needed.
- The character faces the penultimate problem that requires they use the knowledge, resources and skill they gained from solving all the previous problems to overcome. They do it, and succeed.
- The character has now gone from victim of the situation to master of the situation.
And each of the “try/fail/succeed” cycles above (2-5) would usually involve the following steps:
- Figure out what the problem is.
- Try to solve it using current skill/knowledge/resources.
- Fail to solve it.
- Figure out what changes will be needed to solve it. (Skill/Knowledge/Resources)
- Acquire what’s needed to solve it.
- Solve it.
Of course, this would get dull if it’s the same thing over and over, so a writer will need to vary this up a little by skipping steps, rearranging steps, adding steps. A common trick is to vary the thing which the character needs to solve the problem (skills/knowledge/resource) so that it keeps the pattern fresh and has the character going in different directions and experiencing new things. This is also why the Japanese tend to love this type of story so much, because they use it to work in actual skills and knowledge the writer has and is teaching the audience through the story.
Also, the writer must always be planting the seeds of the next level of the challenge in the audience’s minds. Sometimes this is self-evident (“I have to become a Sushi Chef, so first I must master making rice, and then cutting fish, and then…”) and sometimes this needs to be set up at the start (“If we don’t succeed in just one year, Mother Earth will disappear!”) and sometimes it’s all about throwing new challenges at the heroes every time they think they’ve won.
And this is one of the Creative/Exploratory Procedural’s other great strengths. It can be as long or short as the writer wishes it to be, and can fit nicely into segmented boxes, which makes it great for serial forms of storytelling. Each Episode/Chapter/Arc is a try/fail/succeed cycle covering a different aspect of the character’s progression, and there can be as many of them as the writer needs to fill up whatever space needs to be filled. (If a task normally has 5 steps to mastering it, then there are 5 story arcs about the character mastering that task. If there are 150 Pokemon to catch, then you can have 150 episodes of catching Pokemon…. Unless you keep adding more… and more… and more…)
Which leads me to a word of caution- Procedurals live or die on novelty and creativity. As soon as they become old-hat and the audience knows all the variations of the formula, the audience will get bored really quickly and stop caring. So while the strength of a procedural is that it can be as long or short as the writer wishes, a good procedural writer knows when the say enough is enough and end it. Sometimes this too is self-evident (the character has reached a level where they can’t go any higher or expand any further) and sometimes the writer just needs to follow their guts and quit while they’re ahead. (Leave while they still want more, and they’ll be back for your next story.)
One last important thing to note about Creative and Exploratory Procedurals is that they’re… well… creative! By their very nature, these two types of Procedurals are about a character (or characters) making and accomplishing something. While a heroic journey is about the transformation of the character(s), the heart of a Creative Procedural is about transforming the world around the character. At the end of a Creative Procedural, the world the character lives in is a different place in some way (big or small), while the main character themselves may or may not have really changed that much at all. (This doesn’t mean that the Main Character in a Creative Procedural can’t completely transform, just that they don’t HAVE to transform like they do through a Heroic Journey.)
I think this is why I find them so attractive. They’re positive stories, about characters using their intelligence to accomplish goals and shape the worlds they live in. They’re about building up and making new things like businesses, communities, organizations, or societies. As opposed to heroic journeys, which are all too often about kicking the designated bad guy’s butt in ways which are all too often more destructive than creative.
And a little creative positivity can go a long way in a hard world.
I’ve been a big fan of pulp writer Lester Dent’s Master Story Formula for a while. I consider it perhaps the simplest layout for a plot-driven 4-act action/adventure story structure I’ve ever seen, and it really does make it easy for almost anyone to plot one of these stories just by following the formula. (Notice I said “plot”, writing it may be another matter.) I’m not alone in this, as many writers have used, commented on, and modified this formula over the years since it was first published.
Recently, I sat down to think about how to improve the formula and make it into a more efficient checklist form for planning purposes. I edited it down to the essentials, added questions, and turned it into a true formula. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m debating about editing the pulp-iness elements out of it, but I thought I’d share it to get feedback and in case it might help new writers or experience writers who are looking to try their hand at writing this kind of story.
Naturally, this formula is like “training wheels”, you should feel free to use it as needed and then dispense with it when the time comes. However, it’s still a very viable and flexible 4-act structure, and I’ve heard of writers even using it as their basis for tales of comedy, horror, romance and even erotica! Also, remember that just because it says 1500 words doesn’t meant that you can’t make that 15,000 words and turn this into a novel writing formula, although that will require a lot more detail such as Michael Moorcock provides in his “How to write a book in 3 days” variant of this formula.
I recommend copy/pasting the following into a Word Processing Document so you can work through it as you go, and have it on hand as needed.
Lester Dent’s Master Story Formula Checklist
By Lester Dent, with Robyn Paterson
Go through the formula:
Pick From the Following (2 is optimal, 3 is great- make sure these are clear before you move on):
- A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
- A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
- A DIFFERENT LOCATION THAT THE READER WILL BE UNFAMILIAR WITH
- A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO
- A different murder method could be–different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?
- If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary. Scribes who have their villain’s victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag. Probably it won’t do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.
- The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones. Here, again one might get too bizarre.
- Unique location? Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure–thing that villain wants–makes it simpler, and it’s also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you’ve lived or worked. So many pulpateers don’t. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.
Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:
What three tags make your main character unique in the mind of the reader?
FIRST 1500 WORDS
1–First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved–something the hero has to cope with. What is the Line?
2–The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.) What is the problem to be solved?
3–Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action. Who are the main characters of the story?
4–Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words. What is the physical threat/conflict?
5–Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development. What is the 1st act twist?
(SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?)
SECOND 1500 WORDS
1–Shovel more grief onto the hero. What is the problem the twist leaves them with?
2–Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to another physical conflict. What is the second physical conflict?
3–A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words. What is the 2nd act Twist?
- NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE? Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?
- DON’T TELL ABOUT IT***Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader–show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM. When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page.
- It is reasonable to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until–surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.
- BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.
THIRD 1500 WORDS
1–Shovel the grief onto the hero. What is the challenge of the 3rd act?
2–Hero makes some headway. How do they overcome the challenge of the 3rd act?
3- and corners the villain or somebody in:
- A physical conflict. With who?
- A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words. What is the 3rd act Twist?
- DOES: it still have SUSPENSE? The MENACE getting blacker? The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix? It all happens logically?
- These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.
- These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once. The idea is to avoid monotony.
- ACTION: Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action. ATMOSPHERE: Hear, smell, see, feel and taste. DESCRIPTION: Trees, wind, scenery and water. THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.
FOURTH 1500 WORDS
1–Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero. Where is the hero at start of act 4?
2–Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.) What is the situation the hero finds themselves in?
3–The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn. How do they do this?
4–The mysteries remaining–one big one held over to this point will help grip interest–are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand. What is the final overhanging mystery?
5–Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.) What is the final twist?
6–The snapper, the punch line to end it. What is the Final Line?
- HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line? The MENACE held out to the last? Everything been explained? It all happens logically?
- Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING?
- Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?
Review the above, and look for things you can improve upon. Now that you can see the story laid out before you, what needs to change? Often your initial choices for the first and second part will change now that you have a better idea of what happens in the third and fourth part. Maybe there’s a better location for this story. Maybe you have a better idea of how the villain will menace the hero. How can you make the action more continuous? Tweak the above and play with it- trying different approaches.
Get out there and write that story! Outlines are nice, but nobody buys outlines! They buy stories, and the story you’ve got now is a winner! So bring it to life and get it in front of an audience! Have fun!
One of my favourite manga of all time is the manga Bakuman, a fantastic story about two young Japanese comic book artists who are trying to make it into the big leagues by the creators of the famous manga Death Note. Although I use the word fantastic to describe it, there are no fancy elements present in the story, is a very realistic take on what it is like to become a manga artist in Japan. In many ways, is similar to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the greatest book on comic book art ever written, except that this time it’s in the form of a fictional story. Bakuman itself is an exploration of both the business and the creative side of selling Japanese comics, and it is both educational and enthralling. I have read the whole series of 20 volumes through about six times, and will probably continue to read it again once a year because I always get something out of it and find something new with each read through.
I bring this up, because I recently stumbled across a podcast that reminds me a bit of Bakuman, it is called the Part Time Writers Podcast and is a chronicle of two part-time writers, Chris and Lee, who are trying to become a full-time writers in the course of a year. The podcast itself, which is 100% real, is their weekly journal of their efforts to become successful writers, and is a story in and of itself. Although the protagonists of this particular story are a little bit older than the teens of Bakuman, and not trying to get into traditional publishing, they still have to struggle with many of the same creative and business issues that the young heroes of the manga do. Perhaps, this is why find it so interesting to listen to, and it has become one of my favorite podcasts listen to each week.
Now, I may be a bit biased because I’m quite fond of the superhero genre, and their first effort is to try and write a superhero series. But, the two of them do make a pretty engaging pair, as they have different backgrounds and different perspectives on the writing and the approaches that they have to take to get their books out successfully to their target audience. I have to say, as a part-time writer myself, I’ve learned quite a bit from listing to the two of them and find it fascinating to hear their discussions and their ideas, and then to watch them try out those ideas and sometimes fail and sometimes succeed. I also find the two of them quite inspiring, as they generally keep a very positive attitude towards their work, and are willing to try new directions and try new things when plans go awry.
This particular experiment started in January 2016, and is still going on right now, being a little over two thirds finished. Although, I suspect (spoiler) that they will probably end up doing the podcast for more than a year for many different reasons.
So, if you get a chance I would highly recommend checking out this podcast. I started listening to it for specific episodes about specific topics, but if I were to try again I would probably just go back and start with the first episode and work up from there. Unfortunately, iTunes doesn’t seem to have the first seven episodes and starts with episode eight on its feed. However, I believe you can get those first seven episodes from the show’s home website if you want to listen to them. You can still get quite a bit by just listening to individually targeted episodes, and really you can drop in anytime, but if you want to get involved with their story and understand truly what’s going on it helps to start from the beginning or close to it.
In this episode, Rob and Don discuss the cons of becoming a professional writer (or artist). While the internet is filled with people telling you that you’re one Kindle book away from quitting your day job (mostly by people selling writing how-to advice and services) Rob and Don look at some of the cold, hard costs and challenges that come with trying to write for a living. Along the way, they discuss ways to overcome those challenges and make yourself a better writer if you’re determined to follow the hard road. All this, and a heaping helping of Dinosaur Porn are waiting for you in the 23rd episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs!
Closing Music: Ode to Joy performed by Oliver Eckelt
The Independent newspaper had an interesting piece today about a pair of researchers (Penguin UK editor Jodie Archer, and associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Matthew Jockers) who have spent the last 5 years using computer algorithms to analyze 20,000 books looking for patterns that make best sellers stand out. The result is a system they claim can predict bestselling books by an 86% margin, which is pretty good.
Naturally, they’re releasing what they learned in their upcoming book The Bestseller Code (and probably marketing their software to major publishers as we speak) however they did release a few interesting tidbits from their research:
“Novels with high or low emotions tend to have a stronger chance of hitting the [bestseller] lists and staying on them.
A couple of pointers from the findings: real people are more appealing to readers than fictional being, so stay away from Dwarves, unicorns, and elves as main protagonists. Those characters who appeal the most are also more likely to “grab”, “think” and “ask”.
The words “need”, “want” and “do” are twice as likely to appear in bestsellers, while the word “okay” appears three times as much. Words like “love” and “miss” appear more often in successful books, apparently appearing three times for every two in lesser selling books.
So, basically, people like reading about other people they can relate to, and stories where the main characters are active and pursuing goals (especially relationships) are what readers want. Now, the word “okay” is an interesting bit, and my interpretation on that is that readers like books written in colloquial and easy to understand language. It may also be a side effect of most bestsellers being modern thrillers and romance novels, so “okay” turns up in modern dialog a lot.
It will be interesting to see the results of this research, and how far it can go. Of course, the publishers would eventually like to have machines churning out their bestsellers like widgets, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon. Also, it will mean a bunch of books which don’t fit the formula will never get the chance to reach a wider audience, because 86% is not 100%, and many good books could fall between the cracks if publishers start using this to cut costs and be lazy.