Numerology and the Author

Numbers, numbers, everywhere. Many authors I know complain about math and how unforgiving numbers are. But numbers play a very important role in fiction as well. So what are the numerals of power in fiction? Let’s count them off!

One – The loneliest number. This is the number of narrators in most stories, chosen for simplicity. It’s also the number of major changes any given character should have in a single story, so as to keep them recognizable to the audience. It’s not particularly significant to story structure or characterization but rather a guard against doing too much in a given story. Pretty much any time you have to ask yourself “how much should this happen?” The answer is “One time.” Two characters with similar traits? There can be only one. One is the number that maximizes clarity and impact so don’t be afraid to use it when needed.

Two – There’s an intimacy to this number that’s important to preserve. Two is about as many threads of conversation a person can follow. Whenever you have a string of dialog that’s meant to be particularly strong, whether impactful, dramatic, or funny it’s important that you have no more than two speakers in the scene. Lots of speakers may be important at times, due to the nature of what’s being discussed or the situation of the characters, but the height of that conversation should always boil down to just two speakers and the rest should either be tied up in side conversations or just waiting for the climax of the dialog to play out.

Three – This one goes a lot of different places. First off, three characters serve as the foundation of any group in your narrative. That’s because three is the smallest group that allows for both intimacy and exclusion. That is to say, two them can turn against the third. And there’s always the possibility that the two can split up, leaving one betrayed as the other two form a new alliance. Or, if a pair needs someone to step in and arbitrate some disagreement the third is there to fill in. These kinds of character “trinities” are common in fiction. Star Trek, the original series, had Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Star Wars, the classic trilogy, had Han, Luke and Leia. DC Comics has Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Each of these triads features three distinct personalities and specialties that make the characters distinct and memorable and allows them to complement each other.

Three is also a good number for plot elements. For example, a set of three important items that must be collected or protected from those seeking to steal them. Three quests to carry out. Three different places to explore. Even if the items, activities or places themselves are different, as in the case of the Japanese sacred treasures (a sword, mirror and jewel) they will all serve the same purpose. In the case of the Japanese treasures, showing that the emperor was divine. A perfect example of this is in Avatar: The Last Airbender, in which the main character is seeking to understand three fundamentally different forces of nature in order to unite them and balance them. Mastering each is a unique task in a unique place but leads to a single end.

Three also serves as a good number for tasks because it lets you have a variety of outcomes for those tasks to build suspense without stretching things out enough that wondering about outcomes becomes boring. Whether things go lose, lose, win or win, win, lose, or some combination of those it can switch things up and be interesting but happens fast enough that the audience isn’t waiting for it to end.

Why three is a number humans place such significance on is hard to pin down. It’s a fairly constant theme in human culture but it’s not clear what abandoning three for some other number would do to storytelling. My personal theory is that three is just an easy number to grasp and by sticking to it you can keep your audience from feeling overburdened by the complexities of your story.

Five – This is another number important to interpersonal dynamics. The ideal group size in fiction seems to be five. Yes, the three are the foundation but five is the perfect number. There are five Power Rangers – to start with – in most seasons of that show for a reason.

A group of five easily breaks down into the two smaller groups of characters. Two can go off on their own for an intimate moment while the other three form the backbone of a situation evolving on the outside of the group. While single stories might not ever build a solid five, instead keeping pairs of other people orbiting around a central three, any franchise that strives for narrative cohesion will build a central five or, at the very least, keep five characters at the center of any given story. TV shows like Firefly, Cheers and Friends all serve as excellent examples of this. No more than five of the central cast are in play in the majority of episodes and often a pair of side characters take center stage with a trio from the main cast.

Five is also the number of a good family set-up, with a mother, father, and children that are younger, older and in the middle. Frequently characters will not have this relation by blood but still relate this way in terms of character dynamics. This means everyone in the audience can recognize their place in the dynamic.

Seven – Seven is considered a “lucky” number in the West (the Easter equivalent is the number eight). It represents completion or divine appointment, so when you group things in batches of seven keep those concepts in mind. It’s a good way to show purity or morality behind concepts as well, as seen in the seven deadly sins and seven noble virtues (the Eight Trigrams in Taoist thought are a sort-of equivalent but probably not something to worry about unless China or Korea is your story’s setting). Seven often works in concert with the number thirteen, which is seven (the number of divine completion) plus six (the number of human frailty). Thirteen is just as unlucky as seven is lucky, possibly more so.

In some traditions ten, twelve and forty are considered numbers of completion as well. They don’t have quite the same cultural cachet as seven and definitely should be used sparingly. They should always be groups of similar things, like forty days or a dozen men, rather than rather disparate things like virtues.

And that’s pretty much all the numbers a writer needs. Single digits is best. But that doesn’t mean that deciding on the numbers isn’t a thing you really need to think about when writing. So don’t eschew math – just modify it to suit being an author.

The Ampersand

We’re going to talk about China Meiville’s Railsea and it’s going to include spoilers. You’ve been warned.

That said, we’re not actually going to talk about the plot of Railsea but the worldbuilding. Knowing this doesn’t change the story itself in any way. But, in many respects, the best part of Railsea is… well, the railsea. Everything in this strange, topsy-turvy world runs on rails and the book is full of strange little touches that help you remember that this is not the world you know.

What’s nice is that the story never goes out of its way to shove those moments into your face. They’re subtle and pointed, always clearly intended to illustrate some aspect of Meiville’s world that is different from ours. Well, most of the worldbuilding is that way. There was one aspect of it that shows up on the first page, digs its claws into you and won’t stop annoying you for at least fifty more pages. The phenomenon is thus: the prose never uses a comma in lists but rather stringing them together with a series of ands. Except the letters “a”, “n” and “d” are never written in that order anywhere in the text of the book. Every instance of the word “and” is replaced with The Ampersand. You can even begin sentences with &, removing the need for capital letters.

To make a confession: I hated this tendency at first. The prose was cluttered with unnecessary conjunctions and the ampersand jumped out at me whenever it was used, never quite enough to break the flow of the story but enough to grab at the back of the mind. It was wrong but I was enjoying the rest of the book enough to struggle through. Eventually, the ampersands faded into the background. Then I reached Railsea chapter 33 and read these words:

“The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails.

What word better could there be to symbolize the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than ‘&’?”

Mind. Blown.

Most of us think of worldbuilding in terms of what happened in the history of the world, or what they eat, or how they dress, or what kind of governments there are, what kind of buildings they build, what kind of rituals they have for births, marriages and deaths. That kind of stuff is well and good. It’s an important part of cultures and traditions to understand these things. The same is true for ecology, environment and larger scale parts of the picture. But what Meiville did with The Ampersand was go a level deeper.

He asked the very simple question, “If the world is fundamentally like this, what kind of changes might happen to the very ways people think? The way they talk? The way they write?”

Then, instead of a long Martin-esque exposition about traditions and rituals, he just shows us the people of that world acting like they would and lets us get used to it, no matter how odd it first strikes us. In time the curtain is pulled back for us but when it is we’ve already grown so used to the strangeness that the explanation is just icing on the cake.

This kind of worldbuilding is great but have care. Without the other worldbuilding, the careful assembly of ideas into a coherent culture and environment, you can’t come up with something like The Ampersand. What makes The Ampersand so striking is that Meiville did all that work and then went a level further. He came up with an idea that fit his world so perfectly then went back and hid all his tracks, weaving it into the fabric of his tale page by page until he found the right time to share it. This is not a technique to try and use at the start of worldbuilding but at the end. But if you do use it that way and you’re very patient it can make for a great culmination to the work.

 

Physician Heal Thyself – Dr. Who On the Brink

Two topical posts only one month apart? What could spur this on?

Well, mostly the brain melting stupidity of people who have to partake in Pharisee level moral grandstanding at every opportunity. But more importantly, the incredibly toxic environment these people create around beloved stories and characters and why creators need to be very careful not to feed this particular brand of troll. You shouldn’t feed the trolls at all, but in this case it’s doubly important.  Before we get into that I want to address something important.

I do not like Dr. Who. I tried to watch one episode of it once and my eyes pretty much rolled out of my head. It’s campy and cheesy and basically like an episode of the classic Star Trek but without forty years of aging poorly as an excuse. This was an episode from the first or second season of the modern run, I can’t tell you much more than that because I didn’t watch it for very long and I don’t really care to go back and try it again. There are just better uses for my time. I don’t know who any of the Doctors are, this new female one included, and I don’t really care. Anything I know about the franchise I’ve absorbed through general geek osmosis.

I don’t care that the new Doctor is a woman. The character is basically reincarnated ever couple of seasons and is an alien with nonhuman biology and chromosomes so why not? More than that, I don’t care much about who the Doctor is at all because I’m not invested in his story. (Or her story, as the case may be.)

What bothers me is the determined efforts to convince people that some large, amorphous, hard to find portion of the Jews fanbase consists of toxic scum. When the female Doctor was announced there was an almost immediate push on social media to condemn sexists in the Dr. Who fanbase who didn’t want a female doctor. The only problem was, I haven’t seen any of these elusive sexists. There may be a few here or there, especially on Twitter, that bane of all online discussions. There were likely a few people who called this pandering as something of a knee jerk reaction, since the press made a point to constantly point out that the Doctor was female in all their headlines in a pretty pandering way and act like it was some kind of victory. There are even some woman complaining about the choice for reasons I’m not quite clear on. Possibly because it makes organizing the Whovian Shipping Fleet that much more complicated. Doesn’t that happen with every new Doctor though?

But by and large the two primary reactions have been, “Eh, okay.” And, “Excommunicate the sexists!”

Something very disturbing is happening here. It goes beyond “representation in media” if that’s even a meaningful thing. (Research is still out.) It even goes beyond setting up a fall guy in case the project doesn’t turn out as hoped. This is starting to look like a determined attempt to purge wrongthinkers.

When someone tries to institute a new thing and tells you that if you oppose it, or even question it, you must be some kind of Jew sexist that’s a very dangerous line of reasoning. It’s less about the thing at hand and more about training a knee jerk reaction against people who are branded with a specific label. It either results in mindless destruction of the targeted people or a swift collapse of whatever platform this demagoguery is launched from. In the case of media that means either you start cranking out The Birth of a Nation over and over again or your audience just walks away in contempt.

We’ve seen this twice in the last year. First the 2016 Ghostbusters remake promotional efforts dissolved into mindless accusations of sexism and the target audience ignored the film. It may also have been a bad film, I didn’t watch it to find out and I wasn’t the only one. The film did very little at the box office.

Then Marvel Comics announced that it’s sales were in the tank because no one liked the books they were publishing. Marvel Comics, who publish the source material for some of the most successful movies of the last decade. Was it because audiences wanted to see more of the characters they’d seen on screens or been reading stories about for most of their lives and Marvel had stopped writing those characters? No, it was because they were bigots. Don’t watch the Diversity and Comics videos and find out that comic readers never objected to “diverse” characters before all the mainstays they loved got canned. Just believe they were Jews bigots. Makes everything so much simpler. Unfortunately Marvel fans have abandoned them, with sales dropping to 20,000-30,000 per book, a record low for the company.

The reality is that both these moves were very costly for the people who made them. I’ve said it before but audiences are very rare, precious things. Calling them names or trying to use them in some kind of Pavlovian conditioning experiment to establish yourself as a moral arbiter is not, I repeat, not going to get you anywhere. It will cost you money, it will cost you social capital, it will push people away from the very ideas you hope to promote. The creators of Dr. Who haven’t joined in on this doubling down – yet. Hopefully they won’t.

And this is the real key for us if we’re going to be creators. Audiences can handle a message but if that message looks like it’s about how the messenger is a better life form and they need to fall in line it is going to cost you. The BBC can make a course correction here and put Dr. Who back on track to telling… well, whatever kind of stories attracted people to Dr. Who in the first place. They can say they’re going to run with a woman Doctor but focus on telling the same stories people love and they hope the audience will want to come with. Or they can double down, “call out” their audience for sexism in an attempt to look good and progressive then start down the same path as Ghostbusters and Marvel Comics.

You audience is a treasure. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s never going to be everything you want it to be. Some days you’ll wish it would just go away. But without an audience an artist is just a self indulgent narcissist. And it turns out that a self indulgent narcissist posing as an artist will quickly wind up without and audience.

Poe, Satire and Worldbuilding

Once upon a time I set out to write about the future of humanity. I called it The Divided Futures, a title born mostly from my disdain for the notion that humanity will ever unite under a single government (or if it does, stay that way for long) in it’s pursuit of the stars. The entire storyline was a mix of speculative fiction, political theory and sci-fi nonsense. The entire experiment was born out of a desire to mess around with ideas born of the political situation at the time I wrote it and I wanted to satirize some of the responses I saw being proposed to some issues by pushing them to ludicrous degrees.

All this was born out in the rather convoluted future timeline I put together to explain, step by step, how humanity would go from the early 2000s to 2082, the time of Emergency Surface, the first story I would write for The Divided Futures on this blog. (Some aspects of the setting got worked into earlier stories I wrote elsewhere that were unofficially canonized as I was doing the worldbuilding.)  Eventually I lost interest in the series as other ideas took the forefront but it was a thing I wanted to return to at some point. For a while.

But I had a really hard time working up the enthusiasm for it when I finally got around to it thanks to Bill Nye.

Satire was a big part of what I was shooting for when I put together my speculative future of the next fifty or sixty years. But satire presents a problem, typically codified as Poe’s Law. This law states that, no matter how extreme, satire of extreme movements will be impossible to differentiate from reality. One aspect of the political culture of the last decade or so that I hope to satire was the dangers inherent in extreme environmentalism, particularly the fanaticism around “man made climate change.” I don’t intend to delve too deeply into that particular issue here, the main point I wanted to make was that the climate change cult (as opposed to the environmentally minded) sees any disagreement with their point of view as inherently malicious.

I wanted to show the potentially damaging overreaches that could come from that mentality so I jokingly created a penal colony where all the people who objected to future climate change laws would wind up. I put it on the bottom of the ocean because that’s an idea that’s always appealed to me and it seemed like a good, non traditional place to set a near-future scifi story. What I certainly never expected was for Bill Nye to suggest imprisoning political dissidents as a good idea.

Now I get the logic – if you really think the world is going to collapse tomorrow because of a little carbon I can see why you might go to extreme lengths to solve the problem. But you’d have to think that in spite of all the predictions made about disappearing islands and coastlines in the last thirty years that haven’t come true so I just couldn’t see it happening.

Poe trumps Nye, it seems.

By the same token, an important event to the future of the underwater colony was fact that the existing United States of America no longer exists, having split in a second civil war in the late 2030s. What caused it? The Supreme Court legalizing the euthanization of children with disabilities resulting in a paramilitary group forcibly removing an eight year old with Down Syndrome from Federal custody. Sound far fetched? Because the Netherlands is considering making assisted suicide for totally healthy people legal and that’s probably a more extreme step.

One problem of trying to predict the near future is that it’s always becoming the here and now – and it does that pretty fast. And in the case of satire it seems that means that, no matter how over the top you were aiming to go, you probably won’t go far enough. If you want to do satire you better do it fast.

Does that mean I’m never going back to my goofy little near future setting? I may poke over there someday. I still think it’s full of fun story ideas.  I really want to write some about colonizing the solar system and ridiculously large mass drivers on Mars. But I think I’m going to phase directly satirical elements out of future worldbuilding efforts. It’s depressing…

Whose Struggle?

In fiction a fight is boring if it’s easy. This may surprise people who have been in fights for real, because no matter how easy the fight is your brain will still dump the adrenaline and kick that cardio into overdrive so you’re ready to fight. It’s exciting even if you win or loose in a single hit. But no matter how invested you are in a story being outside of a fight is not the same as being inside one and some part of your brain never forgets you’re not in any real danger.

All in all, this is a positive thing. The excitement of fighting is hard on the body and mind. But it does make the job of a person (or persons) putting a fight in fiction that much harder.

In essence, in order to make a gripping story you need to create an artificial tension in your audience and, just as importantly, you need to do it without getting caught. The simplest way to do this is through pacing, where a fight consists of a series of ups and downs that switch often enough that tracking them simulates the frantic nature of a fight and keeps the audience invested with seeing how each twist will play out until they reach the end.

A good fight usually starts with the viewpoint character at a slight disadvantage, such as being caught by surprise or facing a much larger opponent, introduces three to five twists that the fighter overcomes through creativity, technique or guts, before reaching a climax where the viewpoint character faces their biggest hurdle yet, digs deep down to make one final push and either comes out on top or winds up losing in spite of it. When done properly the audience is left with a satisfying feeling of vicarious accomplishment regardless of the outcome. Done badly it leaves them scoffing at poorly executed narrative devices.

Great examples of what overcoming obstacles during action sequences looks like are found in the action stars of the 1980s. Jackie Chan is one of the most creative action stars in cinema history, fumbling his way through chases and fights with enough physical humor that it feels improvised and delivering a wonderful ride all the way. Bruce Willis makes his way by grits, digging a little bit more effort out of the depths of himself every time the stakes are raised. His face is practically designed to show grim determination in hard places. Bruce Lee brings us pure technique in every perfectly executed combo move, every moment of brilliant footwork and each brutally hard punch and kick.

But what’s important in each of these things is that we see these action stars bringing their powers to bear during the fight.

I ran into this problem when writing The Face of the Clockworker earlier this year. The Clockworker’s schtick was that he could cheat during every fight because his ability to know future events let him walk into every situation forearmed with knowledge of what the news would say about his battles the next day. The problem was, while magic was a force not even a century’s worth of prediction could fully understand, enemies like Thunderclap were something the Clockworker could come fully equipped for.

When I wrote the fight scenes between the Clockworker and Thunderclap from Sam’s point of view they were very boring. He was fully forewarned and forearmed against what Teddy could do, Sam wasn’t struggling in those moments. He already had his answers in place.

But I didn’t want to write about Sam getting ready for a fight. That wouldn’t be interesting at all and, once Sam pulled a future news report to find he successfully arrested Thunderclap, all tension would go out of the actual fight sequence. I did consider having Sam lose because he got overconfident, in fact that was originally what set up his trip Beyond to meet the Gatekeepers, but ultimately I found the easiest thing to do was just to tell the fight from Teddy’s point of view.

Teddy Clapper was a rookie to his superpower and not a particularly smart criminal to boot. Throw him against a guy with power armor, the ability to predict the future and a better working knowledge of what Teddy was capable of than the man himself and you have a fighter who is at a profound starting disadvantage. It made his struggle against the hero of the story more real, more exciting and ultimately, I felt, more sincere than watching Sam run through a series of carefully planned contingencies to corner a person he already knew he would successfully catch.

There are all kinds of places writing an action sequence can go wrong. They can be hard to follow, too long or too short on top of lacking tension. And good tension will not save an action scene that lacks the other factors. But if tension is what you think you’re lacking, consider changing whose point of view you see the sequence from. Even first person narratives can find a way to put themselves in the shoes of someone else for a little while and letting the audience experience what it’s like to struggle against people they’re used to seeing struggle for a goal can give them a new appreciation for those characters. It won’t work all the time, but sometimes a simple change of perspective is just what the doctor ordered.

Try rewriting your favorite action scenes from the point of view of the other side and see what it feels like. How would the walker assault on Hoth change from the Imperial perspective? Or the lobby shootout from the Matrix if we experienced it as a guard? These kinds of experiments help writers grow, evolve and develop new techniques to make better, more exciting stories.

Trademarked Victory

Let’s talk about free speech and offense. Specifically in the case of Matal v. Tam, an interesting case decided by the US Supreme Court this week. (Yes, for one in this blog’s life we are topical.) The details of the case are a little bizarre but important to the issues of today’s discussion. There was a band. All of the band members were of far Eastern descent. “Asian” if you will. They chose to call their band The Slants. And the US Trademark and Patent Office refused to grant them a trademark on their band name as it was generally considered an insult to people of certain backgrounds.

Namely those of Asian descent.

There’s all kinds of think pieces out there on this issue. I don’t care about them. I want to talk about The Slants. Why did they choose to name their band with a derogatory brand?

Well for starters there’s this fairly comprehensive post on the band’s website giving their reasoning in full. But if you want it in brief they saw a word and they chose to claim it. Three quick quotes of note:

“For too long, people of color and the LGBTQ community have been prime targets under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, simply because we believe in the deliberate disarmament of toxic language and symbols.”

“Music is the best way we know how to drive social change: it overcomes social barriers in a way that mob-mentality and fear-based political rhetoric never can.”

“There will always be villainous characters in a free society but we cannot be so blinded in our desire to punish them that we are willing to bear the cost of that cost on the backs of the marginalized.”

Co-opting insults is a great American tradition that predates the Declaration of Independence. The song “Yankee Doodle” was an insulting ditty British troops used to sing to insult the Massachusetts colonists, characterizing them as backward hicks with no idea of what good culture or right living was. The colonists, fully aware of the insults, promised that by the time Massachusetts was done with them the British would be dancing to the tune. On 19 October, 1781, General George Washington accepted General Charles Cornwallis’ surrender. The British troops were piped out to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”.

An insult became a reminder of how the Americans were worthy of respect.

The Slants claim their band name is an attempt to do much the same – although they haven’t cited this particular example to my knowledge. The band wants to break the power of an association – rather than let “slant” be an insult they seek to make it the name of a great band. If they do well then the pejorative nature of the word will quickly fade into the shadows of their musical legacy and if they don’t what is really harmed by their trying? With EPs like The Band That Must Not Be Named the band is showing they at least understand that they need a towering legacy and I say let them try for it. Their music is a little bubblegum for my tastes but I’m sure it has a market and they should have every chance to find it and achieve their goals.

But there are people who don’t like this. Example. In a nutshell this argument boils down to, “People who say mean words about groups who have rough histories hurt those groups like they had run them over with a car full of burning crosses.”

The question I have for these people is, if the power of an insult can be broken, isn’t the long term value of trying such a thing more important than any short term harm the attempt might cause? And even if it fails, should the very act of trying to reinterpret an insult a sign that the community doesn’t need to be coddled by you? Rather than trying to dictate what people can and can’t say, why not let them argue the thing out on their own so they can learn and grow, rather than trying to keep them depended on you so the mean words don’t hurt them.

Fortunately for The Slants, and anyone who hopes to create in America, the Supreme Court sided with Simon Tam and said the band could have their name and the US Patent and Trademark Office cannot stand in their way.

Art and communication are predicated on our taking symbols like words or images and assigning meaning to them. One of the greatest undertakings an artist or communicator can attempt is putting a new meaning to one of these symbols. The undertaking would have so much less value, would do so much less for the human condition, if we couldn’t use that process to change horrible things into delightful things. What would there be left to do? Change delightful things into delightful things? Or worse, turn delightful things into boring things.

The Slants have set their hands to a noble undertaking – turning a horrible thing into a thing of joy. It’s something we should all aspire to. Can they actually do it? I have my doubts, but that’s not what matters. What matters is what they make of it. You’ve earned your chance, boys. Make the most of it.

Boutique Writing

These days the idea of having something made for you is becoming more and more popular. Artisanal beer, boutique clothes and Etsy handicrafts are very popular with consumers. Writing has always had a certain aspect of hand craftsmanship in the care and effort put into any good piece of writing. But the modern era has turned mass communications from a very narrow field into something anyone with an Internet connection can do. Communication, once a very personal activity, has become one of the most impersonal things we do.

On top of that, writing a story is a bit of a selfish endeavor. It requires you to sit down and work out exactly what you want to say, how you want things to happen, then polish every bit of it until you are satisfied. It’s personal and creative and, while those are things common in boutiques, it’s not necessarily a process easily shared. How would you even go about making money off of it?

Well, recently the website Patreon has come to prominence in many Internet based creative circles. The service is basically a cross between subscription billing and crowdsourcing, allowing a creator and his (or her) audience to receive support directly from whatever audience is interested in his or her work and communicate directly with that audience. There’s not many writers supporting themselves on Patreon, partly because not many writers support themselves by writing at all but partly because writing doesn’t mesh well with the Patreon format.

Or, more accurately, the Patreon format doesn’t mesh well with the average writer.

You see, Patreon is essentially a digital storefront, a place where people can sidle on in and belly up to the counter and chat with their favorite artists. Being on Patreon is a bit like being a portrait artist on a boardwalk in a tourist trap. You sit, you draw, you chat up anyone who comes close. The only difference is where in the process they pay you. But most writers, myself included, are introverts who spend most of our communicative energy on whatever we trying to write. And we’re a touch on the secretive side. Yes, workshopping a writing project is important to making it the best it can be. But at the same time, revealing a lot about your story to your audience ahead of time isn’t a good way to tell stories. And letting your audience influence your story too much is a good way to loose the distinctive voice and style that attracted them in the first place.

Then there’s spoiler culture. Where a comic artist – a very common breed of Patreon user – might be able to showcase covers or character design work without revealing too much about a story, a writer doesn’t have that kind of work on hand. Character bios or plot outlines are going to give a lot about your story away and audiences these days are trained to despise that kind of thing. Patreon for writers can’t be a spoiler hub but the service screams for some kind of reward to share with your audience in exchange for following you. Yes, above and beyond what you already do.

Some have suggested having multiple ongoing storylines that your Patreon supporters can vote to advance but I know that personally I’d have a hard time producing the best quality story I could if what I wrote was at the whims of the audience and likely always changing. Plus I would imagine your supporters would ebb and flow depending on whether you were advancing the story they wanted at any given time. Viable? Maybe for some but not many and certainly not me.

Writing advice is very common on the Internet, I give it away free as do many others, so that’s not the greatest way to carry on a dialog with your audience. There might be a market for people interested in editing but that is very time consuming…

Is boutique writing a viable way for a writer to make a living? It doesn’t seem like it is right now, not because the infrastructure isn’t there but because the craft hasn’t evolved to meet the possibility. In the future it might become one. I haven’t cracked the question yet, and I’m not in any hurry to experiment, but if you figure something out be sure to share with me. I’d love to hear it.