Tag Archives: writing

Dr. Isaac Asimov and the Art and Science of Writing

Dr. Isaac Asimov

I recently read two articles I thoroughly enjoyed and found inspiring. One is on Isaac Asimov’s approach to writing, and the other is “The Five-Step Manufacturing Process That Could Make You A Better Writer,” by Julian Bass, a Lecturer in Software Engineering at the University of Salford. Asimov, who had a PhD in chemistry from Columbia University, would’ve been intrigued by Bass’s engineering approach to writing.

These articles cross-pollinate, and should be read in their entirety. I’ll just give you a taste here.

I was particularly impressed with Bass’s approach, having once worked in the insurance industry as a methods analyst for continuous workflow improvement. Bass summarizes his approach to writing in five principles aimed at minimizing waste and increasing productivity. They evolved from the “Lean” engineering techniques based on Japanese manufacturing methods. Here are Bass’s writing principles:

Flow means to create a regular cycle of back-to-back creativity, a rhythm of finished writing projects.

Value: Good writing will communicate important ideas so that people want to absorb and enjoy them. So, you should try to write in a way that communicates your ideas and makes your audience feel excited, informed or entertained (or all three).

Waste: Finding the value is one thing, but how many projects have you started that ended up sitting on your desk or computer, ignored or forgotten about? That is exactly the kind of waste lean tries to avoid: partially finished work, half-formed ideas and wasted energy.

Pull: You should think of writing, much like manufacturing, as pulling a product towards completion. This means the highest priority writing projects are those nearest to being finished.

Perfection: My writing never achieves perfection, as you can probably tell. But I always trying to aim for quality improvement.

Compare that process to Isaac Asimov’s advice to writers:

Never stop learning – Read widely. Follow your curiosity. Never stop investing in yourself.

Don’t fight getting stuck – By stepping aside, finding other projects, and actively ignoring something, our subconscious creates space for ideas to grow.

Beware the resistance – Self-doubt is the mind-killer.

Lower your standards – Asimov was fully against the pursuit of perfectionism. Trying to get everything right the first time, he says, is a big mistake.

Make MORE stuff – Interestingly, Asimov also recommends making MORE things as a cure for perfectionism.

The secret sauce – A struggling writer friend of Asimov’s once asked him, “Where do you get your ideas?” Asimov replied, “By thinking and thinking and thinking till I’m ready to kill myself.”

It’s always fascinating to get a glimpse of how great minds work, and Isaac Asimov was truly one of the greats. Every piece Asimov wrote, fiction and non-fiction, displays his intellect, his boundless curiosity, and big heart.

Do we still need gatekeepers?

Jill Schoolman

Literary Hub has published Kerri Arsenault’s Interview With A Gatekeeper. The featured gatekeeper is Jill Schoolman, the founder and publisher of Archipelago Books.

The title echoes the ongoing (and sometimes noisy) dispute about the future of publishing. (Check out this online brawl, for example.) “Gatekeeper” is a noun full of baggage, often used derisively by those who insist the rise of self-publishing has made traditional publishing obsolete. But that would mean people such as Jill Schoolman no longer have anything of value for either readers or writers.

The Literary Hub interview highlights the unique and well-suited skills and insights Schoolman brings to her job. She studied film and literature in college, learned three languages, has lived and worked in three continents, and has done freelance film work.

All of which adds up to a good foundation for an editor, which requires both the specialist’s skill and the generalist’s grasp of a variety of subjects — but as the interview reveals early on, it takes much, much more:

KA: How does one learn to be an editor?

JS: You have to be a good reader, a good writer, and have a good ear. I think you also need to be a good listener. You have to listen to the writer’s voice and not impose your own voice on a text. Being a good translator is a similar craft: to be able to feel the spirit of the text and see what the writer is trying to do. When you start out editing, there’s a tendency to over-edit, to be a bit heavy-handed. But the more you edit, the more you grow to respect the text. You can also feel very quickly if you are not adept at it. It’s not for everyone.

Sound like someone you’d like to read and edit your work? I would. Even in this age of CreateSpace and other self-publishing venues, gatekeepers like Schoolman still fulfill a much-needed role for both the reader and writer. Here’s an excerpt from author Tina Ann Forkner’s article 5 Reasons You Should Still Pursue a Traditional Book Contract:

Vetting is important. Having a traditional novel proves your book has been vetted by the industry and that your writing has been found worthy. When it comes to bookstores carrying your books, being traditionally published is still the best proof that your book is professional, well-edited, and has a great story that readers will want to read. You can be vetted in other ways if you are self-published, but it isn’t easy. Having a traditional publisher is still the best route if you want a wider readership.

The traditional submission process makes your novel better. Sure, you are going to get rejected. I’ve been rejected my fair share, and so have J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, but if I had to go through all of that rejection again, I would do it. The great thing about the traditional submission process is that every time you are rejected, you have to revisit your manuscript and make it better before sending it out again. Revision is a great teacher, and I’ve learned a ton from editors who have rejected my work. If you still decide to go the self-publication route someday, you will be glad that your manuscript was read, critiqued, and rejected by editors who knew what they were doing.

Being traditionally published is a VIP Pass. If you manage to get traditionally published, it will be good for the rest of your career. Even if you self-publish or go with a small publisher later, as I have, you’ll be able to say that you were previously published by a large traditional publisher.

Forkner’s point is that there’s much writers can learn from traditional publishing. Don’t get me wrong — I think the rise of self-publishing is a big plus for writers. In fact, self-publishing is a rebirth of the way authors got their work out to a mass audience in the early days of the printing press. Who could argue against the independence and opportunity for greater earnings now available to writers? Plus, as James Scott Bell has pointed out, a writerpreneur who publishes some works traditionally AND self-publishes enjoys more income than those who exclusively self-publish. And, as in other artistic endeavors, greater income affords greater freedom of expression.

The takeaway of this debate is that great publishing freedom requires even greater pre-publication self-discipline.

Quote of the day

Jim Jarmusch

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” – Jim Jarmusch

Best Fiction and Writing Blogs

jules-verne

The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a literary legend. Compiled by jules.

Tina Ann Forkner5 Reasons You Should Still Pursue a Traditional Book Contract
M. L. KellerWhy Writing Advice is Ruining your Manuscript
Melissa TriplettFreelancing for Beginners and Old People
John FoleyThe Legacy of Hard Science Fiction
Christopher MorrisseyA Holiday Film Festival
Brett McKayWhy Every Man Should Read Jane Austen
Kim WinternheimerSubmission Strategies: Advice from a Literary Magazine Editor
Marc AngenotJules Verne and French Literary Criticism

The Linguist as piñata

Noam Chomsky

From Scientific American:

Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.

It’s a great article, and includes an interview with another accomplished linguist, Steven Pinker. Pinker concludes that even after decades of brutal examination and criticism, Chomsky’s famous thesis best explains how children master language. The alternatives boil down to arguing that language is an artificial construct of the rational mind that children, starting from a blank slate, must learn.

This vindication of Chomsky’s universal grammar theory is interesting on two counts, and both impact my writing. First, I’m fascinated by language. More important, scientific support of language as an inborn capability bolsters the view that people are naturally social, as opposed to the atomistic, rationalistic view of humanity pushed by both Hobbesians and Marxists.

We’re not plopped on this planet to enrich ourselves and consume; we are born to experience the world and find ourselves in it. That’s the worldview that animates everything I write.