Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Last Thousand Words

 Typewriter, Book, Notes, Paper, Writing, Write, Antique

Dozens of days of research. Hundreds of hours of writing. Constant sweating and fact-checking, checking in proofreaders and editors, editing and re-editing the manuscript, polishing it to perfection. Every fact must be checked, every slang word period-accurate, every last detail lifted from reality. And what is the fruit of your labours?

One thousand words.

No more than that. One thousand words, give or take, describing the little details most readers wouldn't notice. Little things like a combat shooter preferring a crisp four pound trigger with no creep or slack. The symbolism of the designs on the uniform of a court official. Little things most people wouldn't think of noticing.

Things most readers don't know or care about.

Outside of a few specialist genres, most readers aren't terribly concerned with authenticity and realism. A thorough survey of the Amazon bestsellers list will quickly dispel any notion that readers put much stock in the authenticity of a scene, a character, a world. If asked to assess a story for realism, most readers don't even know enough to know what to look for. And neither do most writers.

What's the difference between Chinese, Korean and Japanese cultures? Ask your average Western wuxia / xianxia enjoyer and see if he can pick apart the disparate cultural elements in an 'Asian-influenced cultivation setting'—and explain why they don't belong together.

How do you plan, organize and execute a battalion-level attack? In most genres, it doesn't matter, so long as the reader gets to see the hero jump into the thick of things.

Why does a character act in a certain way? The average reader won't care too much so long as the narrative continues to deliver thrills and spills. And the average author in turn doesn't care about authenticity either, so long as the dollars and reviews keep flowing in.

The spirit of the age elevates messaging over reality, feelings over truth, irony over drama, pop culture references over creativity. Taking creative risks is a huge gamble, one that may not pay off. Easier to simply deliver what readers are already expecting, to hit the nostalgia groove and trigger the dopamine rush of recognition of pop cult references than to create your own world and to dive into the research necessary to make it believable. Perusing the Amazon Kindle store by sales rank will quickly dispel all notions that realism is essential, or even necessary, to create a bestseller.

Bestsellers are best sellers, not the best stories. How do they sell? One well-established method is to write to market. Doing this in practice is exceedingly simple. Create a bare-bones plot with a well-defined story arc that fits a hungry genre. Cram it with trope after trope, all the tropes you can find that match the genre. Then inject modern-day pop culture references into the manuscript, ideally once every page, to hit the dopamine and nostalgia notes. Sketch out some characters, not too deeply, just enough to speak to the readers' fantasies. Make them all tropes and combinations of tropes. Have the characters act in a consistent way, from start to finish. Do it enough times, and you're going to hit the jackpot.

You don't need to spend even a single second on research. When in doubt, just make stuff up, throw in a trope, drop in a modern-day pop culture reference, and carry on. The reader doesn't care, so why should you?

Why go through all the hassle of research, writing, editing and polishing, all in the name of authenticity and realism, just to write a thousand words a little differently than someone else? If you aren't writing in a specialized genre, such as Westerns or regency romances or technothrillers, the readers aren't going to care. Even if they do, that's going to change.

Outsiders have seen the immense profit to be earned by writing in those genres. They'll take the above attitude with them. An attitude focused on writing to market, writing to satisfy demands for tropes and fantasies, writing to capture as many hearts from as many fans as possible—and with that, money. If these authors are already established, they'll take their own fanbase with them, a fanbase that isn't necessarily conversant with the technical demands of the new genre. Those fans don't know or care enough about realism and authenticity. But once they're in the new genre, their collective presence will be enough to shift the demographic. Do this enough, and suddenly you'll find a demographic less willing to care about authenticity.

Don't believe me? I've just described science fiction and fantasy. The rise of Strong Female Characters in unbelievable circumstances performing increasingly implausible stunts, easily overpowering men in everything they do. The influx of Minority Identity Saviour whose primary function is to crush the Majority Identity Villain. Social justice uber alles is the new ideology of this brave new world of SFF, a world where fans flock to works not because they are good, but because they espouse identity politics. To identify them, all you need do is look for blurbs that focus on hot-button identity issues and books that have won progressive literature awards—and with these books, you'll find fans who care not about truth in writing, but about seeing the right messages reinforced by the right tropes. To this set of readers, the marker of quality is not quality writing, but right messaging—and the right tropes that support this messaging.

On the flip side, you see the same thing in indie publishing. Cultivation fiction took the quest for enlightenment from Chinese religions and perverted it into a quest to become the biggest superpowered jerk. Adult fiction engages the base desires of the reader and brushes aside such petty inconveniences as morality and consequences. Big Names are moving into specialist genres, taking their trope-first attitudes with them, brushing aside long-established norms of authenticity and realism.

If sales rankings are anything to go by, readers don't care about authenticity or realism in fiction. They won't ever notice all the brain sweat you have to expend to write the last thousand words. So, then, why should you?

Because those last thousand words influence everything in the story.

Consider this: the hero and the villain are about to engage in a final showdown. Hollywood will set up a dramatic encounter, then a prolonged fisticuffs scene, and then the hero will inevitably triumph.

But suppose you know better. You know the hero and the villain aren't that sort of people. They are professionals. They are intelligent, they are ruthless, they are cunning. They will not let a showdown like this take place.

How will your scene play out? A tense cat and mouse game, with both parties trying to outmaneuver the other. Before the fight even begins, they prepare the battlefield, call up allies, shut down escape routes, cache equipment. Any confrontation that takes will be fought not with fists, but with weapons. A single solid hit is all it takes to win.

The reader won't notice that. They'll just see the action scene. But they will also notice the set-up, the preparation, the maneuvering. The thousand words that lead to the payoff. Then they will make the connection. And then they see the scene in a whole new light.

It doesn't just apply to the climax either. It applies to everything in the story. The purpose of research is to drive how characters feel, think and act in a scene. It imbues a level of depth impossible without such specialist knowledge.

Suppose a character knows Chinese tea etiquette, and he is sitting with someone who does. When the guest receives tea, he taps two fingers on the table, signaling not just thanks and respect, but also knowledge of tea etiquette. When the host swiftly grinds the teapot against its plate in a circular manner, the guest knows that he has outstayed his welcome—and the host need not say anything that might be seen as impolite. Should the guest insist on staying, he is communicating a powerful message without saying a word—and without offering overt offense.

In such a scene, you have two conversations: the spoken conversation between guest and host, and the unspoken conversation revealed through the language of the tea ceremony. This in turn communicates more about the characters than words ever will. That is something that you cannot pull off if you do not know anything about Chinese tea etiquette.

With one thousand words, you explicitly reveal to the reader the sum of your research. But every one of those words influences a hundred more.

Done skillfully, two different writers, one who does the research and one who does not, can create two stories with the same premises and concepts, but wildly different plots, characters, beats, and conclusions.

With that said, it's not essential to making money. You may even argue that research is counterproductive. Research takes time, editing takes time, polishing takes time, time you could use to publish a book and write the next one. Completed stories matter—incomplete ones don't. The diva who insists on spending months or years to polish her magnum opus will be outearned by the craftsman who reliably cranks out book after book. Even the days you dedicate to research are days that the crafftsman will use to write and outpace you.

If you're concerned about earning a living from writing, why should you care about the last thousand words?

I could make arguments about immersion and suspension of disbelief. The truth is, though, if you're dedicated to the craft of writing, you already know these arguments. You will know that research provides the critical details needed to immerse the reader in the story and enable them to suspend disbelief. If you're dedicated to the art of making money, you only care about these arguments insofar as they will earn you money. And there is no economic argument to be made for extensive research if you do not write in a genre that demands it.

Instead, I will say this:

Do not think about the money.

Think about the audience.

Think about your craft.

Most readers don't need realism. But they appreciate it. On the flipside, there is a specific set of readers for whom appreciation of a work is tied intrinsically into its authenticity. Cursed by the burden of knowledge, they cannot close their eyes to what they know is not so. And when they do find a work that does meet their extremely high standards, their appreciation of it goes through the roof.

If you're a pro writer, you don't need a lot of readers. You do need a critical mass of fans who will willingly buy, read and praise what you have to offer. The kind of fans who love authenticity also tend to be diehard fans who know other diehard fans. Reaching out to such people, while difficult, meets the needs of an under-served audience.

The only way to do this is to do the work. To do the research. To show the readers the thousand words, the distillation of everything you've learned for this book, and to infuse this knowledge into everything you do. To write a book around those thousand words. It is to allow yourself to be guided by truth. To give up what you think you know in favour of what is true. To surrender to truth. And in that surrender, to infuse higher truths into what would otherwise be a consensual delusion, transforming the story into a message, a paean, a prayer.

Those thousand words of research is not about facts. It's about truth. It's not about stating that a match-grade pistol has a four-pound trigger; it's in understanding why someone would choose such equipment, and how it shows in everything he does, including his gear selection. It's not in knowing what the symbols on a Mandarin's robe means; it is in knowing his place in relation to others, and therefore how he will act towards those beneath and above him, and why. Through research, you understand why a character would do something; through his actions, you show the reader his heart; through his heart, the reader glimpses a facet of the truth of human nature.

The highest purpose of fiction, of art, is truth. It is to package truth in beauty, and promote goodness and wisdom in the reader. The last thousand words, the words that can be written only after extensive research, is the outward manifestation of truth. The rest of the story is the undercurrent of truth, girded in goodness and garbed in beauty.

Most writers don't subscribe to such high-sounding ideals. Writers whose primary purpose is to chase the dollar won't care about such things, except as a product to earn even more money. So to them, I will simply say this: if you can meet the high standards of authenticity demanded by the hardest of the hardcore readers, you can convert them into fans, and make money. By serving their needs, they will help you.

But if you're a writer who has read this far, chasing the dollar isn't your primary purpose, is it?

This is the heart of my interpretation of the PulpRev and the Superversive movements, the heart of my art. To unite truth, beauty and goodness in the written word, and to spark the same in those who read it. This is why I spend endless days and sleepless nights chasing down the most obscure of facts, of investing countless hours in writing and edits, all this for just one thousand words.

And if you believe in this too, then take up the allied banners of the Pulp Revolution and the Superversive movement, and follow me.

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