Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Samuel Delaney: On Writing

At the end of science fiction writer Samuel Delaney's short story collection, "Aye, and Gomorrah," Mr. Delaney writes a bit about the process of writing. He claims to only know 3 basic things about writing, but those 3 things end up being pretty big.

Mr. Delaney's rules of writing can be boiled down to 3 extremely simple statements. 1. Don't overwrite. 2. Don't be shallow. 3. Don't be cliche. By themselves, these 3 rules are almost too transparent to be much help. But when Mr. Delaney expands on these rules, they gain importance.

Think of a scene in your story -- now try to imagine every detail of that scene. Not only what you think to be important, but literally everything that would be in that scene, from the objects on the desk to the wallpaper to the strangers in the room and what they're wearing and how they're sitting. Now when you start to write, DON'T mention all of these things. Instead, get into the head of your character and only mention those details that you think that character would notice. The scene becomes richer both from what you include, and also what you leave out.

Have you gotten halfway through a story, and then get stuck somewhere and don't know how to end the story? If so, you need to sit down and think about your characters some more. Think more about your character's motivations, their psychological quirks, what makes them tick. As you keep adding in complexities to the character and the situation they're in, you should be able to see that there is something they would have to do, hence comes the continuation or ending of the story. If you still can't think of anything, trash the story and start another one with more potential for depth.

In today's world, most things have been done. So don't settle for doing what's been done before. Read constantly, and when it's time for you to write, try to approach the story in a way that is uncommon. Don't take the easy route, and instead try something new even if a positive result is not readily apparent. The result will be stories that are fresh and original, because you are willing to take risks.

In closing, Mr. Delaney says that the process of a writer is the process of doubting, of rejecting, of revising. The difference between a true writer and someone who writes is that for a writer, this doubting and revising process is happening continuously and simultaneously during the process of writing. A true writer is holding an image, scene, or psychology in his mind and is constantly thinking and rethinking about it while he is writing, so that the process of doubting does not merely negate, it spurs on new ideas and new ways of describing the same thing. Writing is an intensely active process of thinking recursively -- and the hoped-for result is prose or poetry that is not only good, but created by someone who has thought and rethought enough about it that he knows why it is good.

It is my feeling that the process of writing that Mr. Delaney describes is applicable to more than writing fiction. In fact, it may be the process needed for songwriting, or art, or business, or life. Because it describes a process of thinking, doubting, imagining, and ultimately making lots of small, distinct choices that add up to make a powerful whole.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Blankets, by Craig Thompson

For my recent 26th birthday, I was given a graphic novel called "Blankets, by Craig Thompson. It tells the story of a painfully-withdrawn boy born to a heavily-Christian family, and his experiences growing up and with his first love. It is a character study that hops back and forth between moments in his childhood, and moments he shared years later with his first girlfriend. It is a graphic novel that seeks to display life as it really was for the character, and because of this there is no grand, unified "message" to the novel. In fact, its main message is that life cannot be reduced down to simple rules or ideals. Life is a rich, complex, and sacred experience, and we are lucky to be able to participate, even if only temporarily.

In N Out vs. McDonalds: Business models

I learned these differing business models originally from the book "Fast Food Nation," but I realize that the overall models apply to all business, not just fast food. The In N Out and McDonalds models simply highlight the division in business between human specialization and technological specialization strategies.

The McDonalds business model is well-known. They use high technology to automate as much as possible, reducing the need for skilled workers. They then hire low-skill workers and underpay them. Because they are underpaid those workers are hard to retain, but the simplicity of the day-to-day operation of the technology makes training time shorter, so the turnover is offset by high efficiency in readying new workers to replace them. The high turnover is actually beneficial because workers stay at a low wage, minimizing employee cost, but the maintenance of the automated equipment is costly. The McDonalds model is driven by technological specialization, and minimal human specialization.

The In N Out food chain does things significantly differently. Food is prepared and cooked by hand, and cooking everything up-to-speed requires significantly more training and longer retention periods, because the longer employees stay the more efficient they become at preparing and cooking. Keeping skilled employees requires significantly better pay, so employee cost is maximized. But the technology costs are low because those skilled workers can operate using simple machinery, and do not require the more expensive automated devices. The In N Out model is driven by human specialization, and minimal technological specialization.

These two opposing models are the two main paths of all modern business. Every business has to choose to what extent they wish to rely on human specialization or technological specialization in order to produce their goods or services. When a classical agency buys an automated phone answering service, it is hoping that the cost of the technology will be offset by the money saved over not having an operator. When a tech company implements a database or works to automate and simplify its own processes, it is increasing its technology cost and reducing the need for company-wide specialization and lowering its training time. When a farmer buys highly productive farm equipment, he spikes his technology cost and reduces the need for additional human laborers. Ideally, a company should have both well-trained employees and efficient, easy-to-use technology. But resources are always limited, particularly because corporations are under pressure not only to turn a profit, but turn a maximal profit, so in most cases, a tradeoff will have to occur between investment in people, and investment in technology that reduces the need for people.

* As a footnote, In N Out's business model is driven in part from a religious basis. The company is Christian and believes that a human-driven model is the right thing to do. It is interesting to note that when maximized, the human-driven model is as profitable as McDonalds' "anti-human" model. Another thing to note is that even though high technology can reduce certain employee cost, it requires radically more highly-skilled workers in order to build and fix the machines. At some point in the food chain, there will need to be specialized and retained workers -- and in general, the less workers you have doing the same amount of work, the higher amount of specialization required, technology or human.