Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Writer’s Little Helper

Do you think writing is a matter of inspiration and intuition, that talent is what singlehandedly produces classics, that it is up to creative geniuses to forge fiction’s universes, and that a great work’s words are addressed to those readers smart and patient enough to grasp the true meaning that hasn’t been polluted by commercial concerns? If your answer is yes, then be aware that the author of the book I’m briefly describing here would emphatically say no.

The book is The Writer’s Little Helper, by James V. Smith, Jr. (Writer’s Digest, 2006, 246 pp.). This book stands out from the formidable number of writing how-to books by analyzing “the technical aspects of writing fiction from the point of view of giving readers what they want in a best-seller” (2). That’s how the author puts it, at least. The book is certainly out to help writers produce commercial fiction, and more specifically bestsellers. Smith doesn’t want to help you become a writer’s writer, or a lit theory professor’s writer. He wants to help you reach mass audiences and sell. That doesn’t necessarily mean to sell out—more on this in a second. In that, Smith’s book is not alone. There are several books with the same goal in mind; think back briefly to another title I discussed: Morrell’s Thanks, but.

Even if its focus on readers is not unique, there is something distinctive about Smith’s book—aside from the succulent, full-color, glossy-paper edition. And that is its commitment to the measurable. This may sound odd, but the book is loaded with tools, numerical standards, and schemes you can apply when you plan your fiction, write it, and above everything edit it.

Like what? Like this: structure your novel around ten major scenes. Stick to a Flesch Reading Ease level of 80% or greater. Keep fast-paced scenes above a composite score of 86, obtained by subtracting the Flesh-Kincaid grade level from the Flesch Reading Ease level. Write simple sentences of less than 20 words, while aiming for an average word count of 12. Plot pace across an n-scene stretch in a graph, in order to see how the pace rises and falls and whether this pattern conforms to what you had in mind when plotting those scenes. Strive for singularity: a single idea in each sentence.

The author explains one of the benefits of using such numerical devices: “You don’t have to rely on some vague scale like, It sounds good to me” (130). The catch is also set forth in the book: “don’t rely on readability and mathematical results alone” (133). And that’s a sensible assessment of what the book offers: tools you can use to structure and adjust different aspects of your work (always keeping the mass audience in mind), while remembering that your writing instincts and your other methods to edit and plot are also important. Calculators don’t write novels, but something that sounds good to a writer can also lead straight to his or her manuscript’s rejection at an editor’s desk.

So, whatever your gut reaction to such number crunching is, it all shows a highly professionalized book industry in action. Becoming a professional author, living off it instead of dabbling in it enough to make it to an occasional writer’s conference, demands professional commitments. The tools Smith discusses set standards that help us understand why fiction sometimes goes awry, or why it’s soporiferous to readers and shunned by editors.

Now, these standards are no substitute for talent and good judgment. Smith says you become a truly competent writer once you’ve written a million words (225). It’s your profession by then, and not vulnerable to seizures like writer’s block. The million-word mark is interesting, and there’s probably something to it (Gladwell speaks of a 10,000-hour mark in Outliers). But talent cannot be left aside. Not everyone can produce durable and marketable fiction by just cranking out a million words. To take an example at hand: honestly, the quotations Smith draws from his own fiction weren’t appealing at all. That doesn’t make him a bad writer about fiction, though.

Here’s my take: if you write frequently enough to care about these devices, you’ve probably been doing it for long. You’ve been inebriated with words to the point of being teased by playmates in school and tormented by classmates later on. You’re likely to have put off pub crawls in order to stay inside and read. You’ve probably been honked at after you didn’t see the light turn green because you were probing imaginary people to see how they would react in a given situation. If you haven’t given up on writing after such a long and trying time, perseverance is on your side. And talent probably is too.

If you’re such a person, and you believe you can fine-tune your fiction in order to reach wider audiences, and thus have more time to do what you really wish to do (read and write some more), then books with practical advice of the kind you can try at home and use to tweak your piece can’t hurt. For instance, Smith’s Reading Ease Index would alert me to the fact that the sentence I just wrote, and the first sentence of this post, are both in dire breach of readability. They’re treacherously long. You can take that advice and choose not to use it. But at least you know where to start chipping away if your fiction is running into trouble.


  1. Interesting post, I agree that "talent" is a pretty nebulous concept, which is something that is manifested only after many hours of working at a task until one understands the intricacies and many different approaches. Even for those not keen on producing best-sellers, I think this still hits on some interesting points, such as what is the relationship between planning and spontaneity, etc etc etc.

  2. TLF: "Nebulous" is a very precise adjective to describe talent, or at least how we generally understand talent. Smith's book pretends to show something more measurable and concrete.

    It is in fact interesting to show how planning and spontaneity revolve around each other; I would think not even the greatest champions of planning would rule against at least some spontaneity (Smith also makes room for it in the book). Even when you know where you're going with a novel or a short story, characters may develop a life of their own and take you elsewhere. This is not bad, if it doesn't take away from a brilliant idea. It's sane to preserve a good plot by planning, but to also give characters enough free rein to act naturally. This from someone who until a few months ago was completely inimical to plot-planning a story or novel.

    BTW, I was worried I gave a sense of the method of the book, but not too much of its contents. They're varied. There are sections on character development, plot, point of view, editing, creativity, fiction techniques, word choice, and getting published. There's advice on whether to write genre fiction. A model on how to propose a series to a publisher. A discussion of what editors look for in the first 1,000 and 10,000 words. And so on. I'm not saying Smith's book will be a classic among writing how-to books. But it's got some useful stuff.

  3. Interesante. Hace un tiempo estuve experimentando con los indices de "lecturabilidad" que mencionas y sus equivalentes para el español. Lección aprendida: los indices para ingles funcionan, los de español son una porquería y a casi nadie en el mundo hispanoparlante le interesan. Una verdadera lástima.

    Noto como anda "preparandose" para escribir profesionalmente. Me parece estupenda esa actitud y dudo que haya muchos autores colombianos que se hayan tomado esa molestia. Desde ya le auguro exitos.

  4. Apelaez: Sí, aunque en inglés sirven de maravilla, esos índices no funcionan muy bien en español. O no he podido hacerlos funcionar bien. Pero sí creo que es importante uno mismo revisarse en ese aspecto porque a veces uno se engolosina con oraciones y sin darse cuenta las vuelve una madeja inextricable. Dejar pasar un tiempo antes de releer es un buen antídoto para eso, pero en cierto tipos de escritura uno no puede darse esos lujos. En todo caso, el libro objeto de la reseña tiene un plan B en caso de que esos índices no le sirvan a uno: contar el número de caracteres y el número de palabras, y dividir el primero por el segundo. Él dice que el valor no debería pasar de 4.5 (en inglés, cabe la aclaración). Smith dice que este es el índice más importante al determinar la legibilidad: entre más largas las palabras, más lenta e incomprensible es la lectura.

    Por otro lado, gracias por tu comentario sobre la "preparación" y gracias por los éxitos que augurás. Uno no puede hacerse de la vista gorda ante consejos útiles que pueden producir novelas más ágiles y atractivas, más aún cuando el propósito es poder tener más tiempo para leer y escribir. Gracias de nuevo.