razieltwelve

Because writing should be fun

Insecurity and Arrogance

Let me be brutally honest. There have been times when I’ve looked back at everything – everything – that I’ve ever written and wondered if it was all a big, damn waste.

I stare down at the computer screen and every flaw, every imperfection stares back at me with cold, dead eyes. Every little mistake becomes a thousand times bigger until I can’t see anything good in what I’ve written.

It makes me wonder if I’m a fraud, if it was all just a fluke. Or maybe I’m just no good at all and somehow people haven’t noticed it yet. Insecure? Definitely, but insecurity can be a good thing, sometimes.

A writer needs, I think, a certain combination of arrogance and insecurity. Arrogance because they have to be able to push on through criticism and pursue plots, characters, and ideas when others would give up. And insecurity because they need to be willing to listen to criticism, to accept they might be wrong, and to constantly, constantly improve.

A writer who thinks they are invincible has very little incentive to improve. A write who worries about how good they really are has every incentive to do better.

The trick, I think, is learning to control those dark thoughts, to make them work for you. There has always been – and probably always will be – a little voice in the back of my head whispering about all the mistakes and imperfections in my writing. But that same voice is also the one that whispers improvements, that forces me to study and practice until I get better.

That voice isn’t alone, of course. I’m an easygoing person, for the most part, but there’s a part of me that relishes competition. It’s the part of me that looks at someone else’s writing and urges me to do better – to show that I’m better. A writer needs to have pride, in their writing and themselves, but that pride should never give way to true arrogance. As loud as that competitive voice can be, there’s another one there to match it. It’s the voice telling me how far I still have to go, how much work I still need to do. And even if I can match one writer, there is always someone better, always another person I need to catch up to.

Every writer has that one story inside them, the one they’ve been waiting their whole lives to tell. They’re arrogant about it – they think it’s the best story they’ll ever write, the one that everyone will remember. But they’re insecure about it too – they don’t know if they’re good enough to write it, and they don’t know if they’ll ever be good enough.

I have a story like that. I’ve carried it in my head for more than ten years. It’s been building and building and building. Hell, the entire world that story is set in exists inside my head along with all the associated history and other details. I still haven’t written it. I’m afraid to, because once i do, I’ll have to face it. I’ll have to face all the insecurity and the arrogance. I’ll know, one way or another, if everything I’ve done to improve is actually enough.

The problem with chasing an ideal is that you rarely ever catch it. Or once you do, you find out it wasn’t as perfect as you thought it was. Or worse still, you find out it really is perfect – but it wasn’t meant for you.

But that’s also the most enjoyable thing about writing. It’s an expression of who you are, from your dreams to your nightmares, from your failures to your successes. Everything that you are shapes your writing, and your writing in turn shapes who you are.

Killing A Research Paper

Research papers are one of the primary means of communicating the results of research. They form the foundations upon which theories in a range of different disciplines are built. If you have to engage in academic warfare or simply critique a theory, then knowing how to “kill” a research paper is an important skill.

So, how do you kill a research paper?

Although the exact structure of a research paper varies from discipline to discipline, most will follow the same basic structure:

  • Introduction. This explains the theoretical and empirical basis for the research paper. It should go through the relevant past research, providing a context for the current research. It should also explain any previous theories that may be linked to the current research. If a new theory is being proposed, then the existing evidence for that new theory should be offered here as well. Any hypotheses should also be stated here, and they should be tied to past research and, if appropriate, the theory being tested in the current research.
  • Method. This is where the methodology of the current research is explained. It should offer sufficient detail that a neutral third-party could reproduce the research.
  • Results. This is where the results of the research are provided, along with any statistical analyses. Of particular importance is that the results are reported in an unbiased manner, using the appropriate statistical techniques.
  • Discussion. In many ways, this is the part of the research paper that people are most interested in. It should provide a discussion of the results in the context of the introduction. For example, were the hypotheses confirmed? If so, what does that mean in a more general sense? If not, why not? Throughout the discussion, an effort should be made to put the results into context – what do they mean for the field at large, what do they mean for past research, what do they mean for future research, and what do they mean for the theory/theories that were discusses in the introduction? This is also where any discussion about future directions and limitations in the research should go.

Attack One Section At A Time

The underlying reasoning of a research paper is fairly simple:

  1. Examine existing evidence and theory and on the basis of that evidence and theory, make predictions
  2. Carry out appropriate experiments to test those predictions
  3. Compare the results of those experiments to your predictions and then comment on what that means for the evidence and theory you used to make those predictions

Any attack on a research paper should look to demonstrate that there has been a breakdown somewhere in this chain of reasoning. Here is a section-by-section breakdown of how this could be done.

For the introduction:

  • Has the researcher omitted any relevant past research or any influential theories? If they have, then any hypotheses or new theories they propose may be standing on feet of clay. Of course, it isn’t possible to discuss all the research surrounding a particular topic, but there are always at least a few defining theories and pieces of evidence that should be mentioned.
  • Do their hypotheses or new theories follow logically from past research? It is one thing to present past research, but it is quite another to actually link hypotheses and theories to that research. Be very wary of researchers who simply mention past research without actually showing how it links to their hypotheses and any new theories they wish to propose.
  • Always check key pieces of evidence for misrepresentation or error. Every research paper has particular pieces of evidence or particular theories that it leans on more than others. Always check to see that these pieces of evidence and theories are not only properly cited but also properly interpreted. It is not unheard of for researchers to misrepresent what past research or other theories say to better support their own research/theories.
  • Check the research that has been cited for problems. Just because past research has been cited does not mean that it should be accepted as good evidence. If past research has significant flaws (e.g., I have seen cases where an entire line of research has been contaminated by consistently flawed methodology), then its ability to support the current research is weakened.

For the method:

  • Examine the methodology to ensure that it fits with the accepted standards in the field. A good way of doing this is to compare it to past research. If there are any radical departures from past methodology, examine why they have occurred and if they are beneficial.
  • If there are animals involved (e.g., animal testing in medicine), then take careful note of how similar the animals are to humans in the area being tested. The more similar they are, the more any conclusions can be generalised to humans. The more different they are, the less any conclusions can be generalised to humans.
  • If there are humans involved (e.g., psychological testing), make sure that you are aware of the limitations of formal testing and check that the sample is as representative of the population of interest as possible. For instance, most psychology students in Australia are young women between the ages of 18 and 21. This means that an experiment using typical Australian psychology students is likely to have more women in it than the general population and to be younger than the general population. The results may thus not generalise across the population. Sample size is also critical. There are many forms of statistical analyses that are worthless if the sample is too small.
  • Pay close attention to equipment, testing instruments (e.g., psychological tests), testing conditions, and researcher conduct. As much as possible, everything should be standardised. The more differences there are from one day to another (except for those mandated by the testing protocol, e.g., differing treatment regimes), the more difficult it will be to have confidence in the methodology. Be particularly wary of anything that might bias the result toward the predicted hypotheses or have a systematic impact.

For the results:

  • Check that all of the statistical analyses have been conducted properly and reported accurately. This is particularly important when the statistical analyses are either complex or not common to the field of study.
  • Look at what results have not been reported. Researchers should report all relevant result, even those that do not support their ideas. If a researcher chooses to ignore important analyses or to skip over results that do not match their ideas, then be very wary.
  • Look at how results are reported. Is there a lot of vague and indistinct language? Statistics requires a certain level of hedging, but anything about this minimum level of caution should be viewed with scepticism. Where possible examine things like effect sizes and tests of significance to ensure that these are all appropriate.
  • Have the correct statistical analyses been performed? Using advanced statistical analysis packages, it is possible to throw data into almost any statistical analysis and get something. But that doesn’t mean the results are meaningful. To be meaningful, the correct statistical analyses must be used. Be absolutely ruthless when evaluating the statistical analyses used in research. Be especially cautious when highly advanced statistical techniques are used without a thorough explanation and justification, particularly if these techniques are not normally used for this kind of research.

For the discussion:

  • Look out for attempts to re-word or rework the hypotheses to make things seem more successful. It isn’t wrong to state that a hypothesis has been partially supported, but researchers may try to put “spin” on the results.
  • Check that the results are explained in the context of the hypotheses and any new theories that have been proposed. The researcher should make every effort to at least answer the question of whether or not their hypotheses/theories have been supported.
  • Look at how the researcher tries to tie the results to the evidence and theories cited in the introduction. They should be putting these results into context. If the results do not fit very well with past research, there should be some comment about what this means and why it may have occurred. Be cautious about claims that the new research trumps all of the old research. There are times when this is true, but you need to be very sure before making this kind of statement. If such a claim is made, the researcher should provide an explanation about what makes this research better than previous research (e.g., improved statistical analyses, better methodology, etc.).
  • Ensure that any conclusions that are drawn follow logically from the results that were found. Be careful about researchers that have only vague evidence but still make grand conclusions (or even contradictory conclusions).
  • Be on the lookout for a discussion of problems with the research. No research is flawless. Even a brief discussion of potential flaws is good, and if you detected major flaws in the previous sections, check to see if they are mentioned here. If they are, at least the researcher is aware of them. And if they are aware of them, check to see if they have made allowances for those flaws (e.g., a good researcher would be more cautious about their results in the presence of methodological flaws).

Summary

Killing a research paper requires at least one of the following:

  • Demonstrating that it is not based on sound theory and evidence
  • Demonstrating that its methodology is majorly flawed
  • Demonstrating that the way the data is analysed is wrong
  • Demonstrating that the conclusions it draws are not valid, given the evidence it has obtained via experiment

If you can show that even one of these is the case, you can launch a strong attack against a research paper. Likewise, if you want your research papers to be good, ensure that none of those criticisms can be aimed at you.

If you want to read more of my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, mostly fantasy. You can find that here.

The Concept Of Buy-In For Fiction

In poker, the term ‘buy-in’ refers to the minimum amount of money required to join a particular game of poker. However, the term can also be useful when applied to fiction. Specifically, we can use the term to describe the investment in time and effort that a book or series requires in order to be fully enjoyed.

Consider a typical fantasy trilogy. Each book will have its own plot and character arcs, but there will also be overarching plot and character arcs that run throughout the entire series. Indeed, the plot and characters may not make sense if the books are not read together and in the correct sequence. As a result, the buy-in for the second book is larger than for the first book, and the buy-in for the third book is larger still. Furthermore, the buy-in for a typical trilogy should be smaller than for a seven-book series.

Some fiction maintains strong links to the real world (e.g., political thrillers are often set in the present and take advantage of political, military, and economic realities). In contrast, some fiction maintains only a tenuous link to the real world (e.g., high fantasy or distant-future science fiction). The stronger the links that a story has to the real world, the smaller the buy-in it demands. This is because readers can rely on their knowledge of the real world to help them appreciate the story.

However, even in fantasy stories, there are ways to reduce buy-in. Vampires and werewolves are both highly popular and well-known monsters. A story that follows the traditional rules for these creatures will be less original than one that does not, but it will dramatically reduce the buy-in for readers since readers will already be familiar with the strengths, weaknesses, and behaviour of the vampires and werewolves in the story.

What happens if a story has a very large buy-in? It can be very intimidating. Imagine a story set in a world that is completely different from ours. It involves a society that is radically different, a species that does not share our appearance, psychology, or customs, and technology that bears no resemblance to ours. Although such a story may be very interesting and original, readers may struggle to come to grips with it. Indeed, the mental gymnastics required to keep up with all the new details may actually drive readers away. If, however, the buy-in for a story is very small, it is much easier for readers to just jump in and get involved. For instance, thrillers set in real-world settings (e.g., a story about soldiers in Iraq) should be quite approachable.

High fantasy is an example of fiction with a large buy-in. Take Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Middle Earth is a world with thousands of years of unique history and several races with their own languages and customs, only some of which are shared with the real world. To fully appreciate Middle Earth, it is necessary to not only read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings but also the Silmarillion and a swathe of additional material (e.g., Tolkien’s letters).

Another example of a high fantasy series with a large buy-in is the A Song of Ice and Fire series by G. R. R. Martin. The series is critically acclaimed and very popular. But it can be very daunting for new readers to approach. Each book is quite long, and there are currently seven books. Each of them is filled with details about the characters, plot, cultures, myths, and societies of the story. The series is also known for telling the story through the eyes of multiple characters and via complex, inter-connected plotlines. Missing out on a single book or being unfamiliar with a single character can make the series much more difficult to enjoy.

One way to reduce the buy-in is to offer a summary of the most important events and characters for new readers. It is not a coincidence that the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series have glossaries at the back to help the readers keep track of things. Another way of reducing the buy-in is by using alternative media (e.g., the Game of Thrones television series does a reasonably good job of acquainting new readers with the series quickly although there are differences between the show and the books).

Having a series or a radically original story is bound to introduce some level of buy-in. However, this buy-in can be reduced by giving readers familiar things to latch onto (e.g., using rules or customs they are familiar with) or by offering recaps, summaries, glossaries, and the like to help readers.

The most important thing is not necessarily to eliminate buy-in. Instead, writers should focus on making sure that the readers feel that the buy-in is worth it.

If you want to read more of my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

How To Win Mario Kart In 5 Easy Steps

When I was younger, I loved Mario Kart. So did a lot of my friends. Naturally, that meant we played a lot of Mario Kart. Today, I’m going to tell you how to win Mario Kart. You don’t need quick reflexes. You don’t need a lot of experience. You don’t even need to be good at the game. You just need to be evil and follow these five easy steps:

  1. Identify the most beloved character amongst your group of friends. Choose that character. Ignore their pleas to pick another character. This is about throwing your opponents off, and the easiest way to do that is to force them to play a character they’re not used to. Remember, during Mario Kart, there are no friends. There are only corpses.
  2. Ensure that you are the one choosing the stage and/or the battle mode. Fairness will get you nowhere in Mario Kart. Play to your strengths and force your enemies to languish in their weaknesses. Mercy is for the weak.
  3. If one of your friends nemeses begins to struggle during the game, go after them. Your goal should be complete mental disintegration. That means camping next to them with three red shells. It means leaving banana peels in front of spawn locations or under item boxes. It means pretending to be helpless and then activating a star when someone tries to ram you. It is both kinder and safer to put your enemies out of their misery than to give them a chance to recover.
  4. Form expedient (and expendable) alliances. In any four player game, there is almost always one player that is noticeably stronger than the others. If that player is not you, then help the others to eliminate that player. However, do not strike the killing blow. Instead, let the others exhaust their items/ammunition. Provide them with just enough time to dispatch the more skilled player before turning on them. If you time this correctly, they will be completely unarmed and helpless. Treachery will win where talent and skill alone will fail.
  5. The game does not end at the television screen. The unwritten rule of Mario Kart is that only fools keep the competition in the game. Your enemies can (and will) resort to out-of-game strategies to defeat you. These strategies include (but are not limited to): screaming obscenities, throwing food/shoes, blocking your view of the television, and even attempting to choke you with their forearm while using their hands to maintain control of their character. However, these strategies are for amateurs. You can still play while being insulted. Food/shoes are unlikely to immediately render you unconscious, and blocking the television can easily be countered by kicking your enemy in the back. As for the choking, you can retaliate with a simple head butt to the chin. What you should do is something much simpler: unplug the controllers of your opponents. Without their controllers plugged in, your opponents are helpless, regardless of their skill. For wireless controls, you can either remove the batteries or de-sync. The best kind of victory is absolute victory.

If you have made it this far, then I congratulate you. You are now ready to win Mario Kart.

Next week: Why Every Mario Party Player Should Wear A Helmet

University Can Be A Funny Place #1

I’ll confess that when I was a student in university, I was not always the most attentive student. There were times when I may even have wavered in and out of consciousness during lectures. I’d like to blame it all on a lack of sleep due to excessive amounts of hard work, but boredom also played a role. I do, however, take a certain pride in having never been caught taking a quick nap. I imagine it must be due to my formidable skill in propping my head up in my hand.

But, I digress.

I have, at several points in time, served as a lecturer in a number of different subjects (all of them within the same general field), and I’ve noticed several trends:

  • The easiest way to increase attendance is to claim that you will be discussing the contents of the final exam. Even the most unenthusiastic or ornery student will find themselves filled with sudden enthusiasm at the prospect of making the exam easier.
  • There is always at least one student sleeping in the front row. As someone who may have engaged in the odd siesta or two during a lecture, I strongly recommend you not do so right in front of the lecturer. I will see you, and I will do something. Probably something evil.
  • The larger your lecture is, the more likely it is that student activists will attempt to hijack it so that they can spread their political message. This becomes particularly common during election period, and I have, on occasion, been strongly tempted to go with a good old “Kung Fu Gut Punch!” to try and drive some of the more persistent offenders off.
  • First years are so adorable when they’re trying to work out what to call you. In Australian high schools, students typically address their teachers as Mr/Ms/Mrs Whatever. In university, however, most lecturers (myself included) prefer to be addressed by our first names. Indeed, I don’t generally like to be referred to by my title (I hold a PhD and can thus be referred to as Dr Raz) unless I’m in a situation that truly calls for it. So when students first get to university, some of them come up with some interesting ways of addressing lecturers. I’ve met students who will address every lecturer as ‘Professor’ and others who will address all of their lecturers as ‘Dr’. My favourites are the ones who walk up to their lecturers while looking extremely nervous before addressing them as ‘Sir/Ma’am’.
  • Students can be extremely possessive of their spots. Spots in lecture theatres are not something that people can reserve. It’s a matter of first come first serve. But I’ve noticed that students can become very possessive of a particular spot. Indeed, I’ve seen students try to nudge, shove, or otherwise move someone else out of what they believe to be their spot. It’s quite amusing, especially since these aren’t five-year-olds, these are young men and women. Then again, who am I to point fingers? I was one of those people who sat in pretty much the same spot in every lecture I attended.
  • Students will often come to you with questions about different subjects. I’ve never understood this, but it seems that being a lecturer in one field automatically makes you awesome at every other field too.
  • It’s fun to mess around with students’ expectations. Coming into university, many students expect their lecturers to be wizened sages, faces heavily wrinkled from countless years of academic warfare. Before my first lecture, I will often sit in one of the front rows and talk to the people who arrive early about what they expect from the subject and what they think the lecturer will be like. Yes, it’s a bit sneaky, but it’s also very fun. You’d be amazed by what sort of conclusions students can draw about you based only on your name.
  • Some lecturers do not know how to manage their time properly. I make it a point to always end my lecture early enough that students can get to their other classes and so that the lecturer after me has a few minutes to set up. This is a courtesy that most other lecturers also follow. But I can recall one semester when the lecturer before me always ran 5-10 minutes over time. It got to the point where I would have to stand at the back of the lecture hall and glare before they finally realised what was happening. I ended up having to talk to them about it, but still… the next year it happened all over again (curse the tendency for schedules to stay similar across different years!).

About My Reading Habits

I’ve had a few questions come in about what I read, so I thought I’d take a few moments to give you guys some idea of what I like to read.

I’ll start off with the obvious. I read fan fiction. In fact, I read a lot of it. There are several reasons for this:

  • I like a lot of different series, and fan fiction helps me get more of what I like.
  • Some fan fiction is actually very well written. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that there are fan fiction writers out there that are the equal or better of the published authors that I read. I’m serious, some of the fan fiction out there is absolutely brilliant.
  • There is a lot of fan fiction out there. Regardless of what mood I’m in, I can always find something I’m interested in.

Apart from fan fiction, however, I also read original fiction and non-fiction. Over the years, I’ve experienced a steady shift in the kind of fiction that I read. When I was younger, I read anything I could get my hands on. This included fantasy, horror, science fiction, romance, historical drama, political thriller, military fiction… anything.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at identifying the genres that I like and the authors that I like. As a result, I’m no longer quite so scattergun in my approach although I am willing to take a quick flick through almost any book provided it looks even a little interesting. I don’t particularly care about genre so much as I do about the actual writing. That said, I do find that certain genres have dominant styles that I find preferable (e.g., I’ve enjoyed almost every psychological Western I’ve read because the dominant style in that genre is one I like). Here are the genres I can usually be found reading:

  • Horror. I enjoy horror from pretty much every time period, from the Gothic era, to the pulp horror days, right through to more modern writers like Stephen King.
  • Science Fiction. Although I enjoy modern science fiction, my favourite science fiction writers are all from previous eras (e.g., Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury).
  • Fantasy. I enjoy pretty much all of the classics, but I’ve got a soft spot for some of the newer writers as well. I’m currently making my way through Brandon Sanderson’s stuff, and I’ve been very impressed so far. He isn’t perfect, but he is very good, and he improves with every book.
  • Action/Thriller. I’m a big of Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, so that should give you some idea of what kind of stories I enjoy. More recently, I’ve enjoyed the more “Hollywood” style thrillers (e.g., Matthew Reilly’s work).
  • Legal drama. I used to be very big on legal drams (I’ve read pretty much every John Grisham book ever). However, I haven’t really found someone out of the most recent crop of writers to really grab my attention.
  • Fairy Tales. My sister and I both share a love of fairy tales. Despite their simplicity, they can be very entertaining, and most of them touch on important ideas and concepts. They are also exhibits of how to tell a complicated story simply.
  • Westerns. As a genre, Westerns aren’t as popular as they once were. But I always find myself coming back to a few classics.

When it comes to non-fiction, I tend to focus on areas away from the fields where I am qualified. Part of that is not wanting to get too involved in what I’ve studied, but another part of it is trying to maintain a broad knowledge base. A well-rounded knowledge base can be surprisingly handy to have around. Here are some of my favourite topics:

  • History. I have loved history since I was a child. This includes ancient history (e.g., Egyptian, Roman, Sumerian, etc.) and medieval history (e.g., Frankish, Byzantine, etc.). One of my favourite activities as a child was to run simulations in my head of what would happen if different civilisation met each other.
  • Military history and strategy. This grew out of my love of history. I find the history of warfare to be extremely fascinating. Civilisations have risen or fallen on the backs of their generals and soldiers. I also enjoy studying the actual strategies behind warfare and comparing how those have changed or evolved over time (e.g., how the use of firearms changed war and how the 20th Century saw the integration of flight and high-speed armour with standard infantry).
  • Economics and business. I was in high school when I first started trying to understand the economy and why things sometimes went wrong. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised just how important this is. I am especially interested in what makes businesses successful and how organisations, as a whole, respond to change in the market.
  • Mythology. This goes hand in hand with my love of history. I started off with Greek Mythology before branching out into the others. Although I am familiar with mythology from around the world, I’m probably weakest with South American mythology and strongest with Greek mythology. In more recent years, I’ve been taking a greater interest in the evolution of mythology from similar cultures (e.g., how Ancient Sumerian mythology might have influenced the mythologies of cultures that arose nearby or after it).
  • Current Events. I used to read two newspapers a day before I discovered the wonders of the internet and started reading articles from every major news website I could find (this is where reading quickly and being able to skim read for important keywords/principles really comes in handy). What I find most intriguing is the divide in how different media sources frame and report different events. To this end, I will often go out of my way to read sources from the right, centre, and left. The differences can be quite amazing to see. Indeed, what one country defines are right or left can vary dramatically from country to country (e.g., the Democrats are typically identified as the “left” party in the US but would be heavily to the right in most parts of Europe).

I know this sounds like a lot, but it’s not like I’m reading all those things at the same time. I can also read fairly quickly, which helps. But, yeah, hopefully this gives you guys some idea of what I like to read.

The Rules Of Storytelling

After years of carefully honing my writing, I have finally devised a universal set of rules that covers the art of storytelling. Following these rules will all but guarantee you success:

  1. Add more ninjas. No story has ever been written that could not have been improved by adding more ninjas. But what if ninjas don’t make sense in the story? Fool. Ninjas always make sense.
  2. Add a dragon. What’s not to love about dragons? They’re huge, breathe fire, and can eat any characters you dislike. The only downside is that making a dragon appropriately awesome makes it difficult to include more than one.
  3. Make everybody awesome at kung fu. Seriously, are you sick of characters in your stories flailing at each other like drunk manatees? Well, here’s your answer. Everybody is now a master of kung fu, which should make every fight scene awesome. Heck, kung fu can even make doing the dishes or cooking noodles awesome.
  4. Have everybody be plotting against everyone else with at least seven different levels of treachery. Do you know what’s the only thing better than a double cross? A triple cross. And you know what’s even better than a triple cross? A quadruple cross. Your readers will marvel at the intellectual brilliance of your writing as you masterfully weave a web of corruption so intricate that it would strangle a spider.
  5. Introduce romantic polygons. A love triangle is so passé. How about a love square? Or what about a love tesseract? For those of you who aren’t aware of what a tesseract is (and no, it isn’t just a shiny blue thing that confers awesomeness), it is the four-dimensional analogue of a cube. That is, it is to a cube what a cube is to a square. I suppose a love tesseract would probably go something like this: boy loves girl, girl loves other boy, other boy loves other girl, and all of them love a walrus that has a thing for a fish tank. Because why not?
  6. Use more adjectives and provide more detailed descriptions. And I really mean go all the way. Why should the sky just be blue? To me the sky is a vast, endless, undulating, azure, cerulean, bright, tempestuous, alcoholic, carefree, frozen sundae.
  7. Insert more violence. And don’t be shy about describing it. Everybody’s blood should spew out like their veins are high pressure hoses, and everyone should have guts that literally leap out of their stomachs at the first sign of a paper cut. The bloodier the better.
  8. Ensure that the stakes are always high. Has a character forgotten to make coffee? Their kingdom must fall. Has someone forgot to flush the toilet? Death is coming. And if somebody misses their bus? A giant asteroid is going to wipe out humanity. The higher the stakes, the better the story.

If you follow these simple rules, you can rest assured that your story will be awesome. If you’re still not sure that your story is awesome enough, then add a ninja dragon who knows kung fu and is plotting against the magical, amorous, tireless, stubborn dolphin that wants to break up the complex relationship the dragon has with a chair, another dragon, a wyvern, a drake, and a trans-dimensional hummingbird. And did I mention that all of them are actually plotting against each other, and it’s all going to end in blood. Lots and lots of blood. Oh, and fire. That too.

How Not To Throw A Jab Properly

I’ve long been a fan of combat sports. And until my knees decided to quit on me, I used to train quite regularly in them too. In any case, I still enjoy watching combat sports, especially boxing and MMA (my knowledge of striking is somewhat better than my knowledge of grappling), and there’s something I’ve noticed a lot of people in MMA doing that kind of bothers me.

They don’t throw the jab properly.

Okay, let me expand on that a bit more. A punch does not end when the arm reaches it maximum extension. It ends when the hand is brought back to the guard position and the puncher is back in a stable stance. Until then, the puncher is extremely vulnerable to being hit back by their opponent.

The jab is supposed to be one of the safest punches to throw (i.e., one of the most difficult for an opponent to punish). But that assumption relies on several things:

  • The chin is tucked
  • The shoulder of the punching arm is used to shield the chin (usually by lifting the shoulder)
  • The punching arm should be retracted quickly after throwing the punch, with the arm resuming a guard position
  • The rear arm (right arm) stays in a guard position throughout the jab
  • The jab should be thrown with a clear purpose in mind, not simply to pass the time

Now, the jab is not the most powerful punch in the world. For most people, the most powerful punch is either the overhand right or the left hook. But the jab can still be thrown (and should be thrown) with enough force behind it to make someone think twice. Good timing has a major role to play here since a jab thrown at someone moving forward can hit with far more force than a jab thrown at someone moving away.

That said, one of the most common mistakes I see in MMA is people who throw the “nothing jab”. This is a jab that basically combines every possible mistake into one hideous monstrosity of a punch. Essentially, it’s a pawing jab that lacks any real speed or force, which is thrown simply out of a need to look productive. This punch is usually performed haphazardly with the person throwing it committing several key mistakes:

  • The chin is elevated and the shoulder is not lifted
  • Instead of being brought back to a guard position, the punching arm is allowed to fall and then kind of dragged back up into guard
  • The jab is thrown while moving backward (it is much harder to throw a good jab while moving backwards, and few fighters have the footwork for it)
  • It is thrown in a highly predictable manner

These mistakes leave the puncher off balance with their chin and head completely exposed. Furthermore, because the punch is thrown in a predictable, pawing manner, the opponent can simply walk through it without concern. Do you want to know what this leads to?

This.

Watch closely and you’ll see that most of the knockouts via overhand right are preceded by one fighter moving backwards and throwing a nothing jab. The other fighter then does the sensible thing: they wade forward through the jab (which is too weak to do any real damage) and then throw a huge overhand right into the gap in the first fighter’s defence. Caught mid-punch, the first fighter cannot dodge or brace themselves for impact. They are simply knocked senseless.

Now, MMA fighters aren’t the only people who do this (I’ve seen boxers do it too), but it does seem to be more prevalent in MMA than boxing. There are several reasons for why this might be the case:

  • Lack of boxing training. MMA fighters have to train in multiple styles of combat. It stands to reason that their boxing skills will be poorer than those of a dedicated boxer who only focuses on one.
  • Fear of the takedown. The only possible reason (and it’s still not a good reason most of the time) to drop your hand after throwing a jab is because you fear the opponent going for a takedown. In that case, having the hand (or both hands) low will help defend that, especially if they make a grab for your legs or for your hips.
  • Exhaustion. It is a simple fact that technique breaks down as people get tired. If a fighter has otherwise excellent form that falls apart at the end of a gruelling five-round fight filled with non-stop striking and grappling, I can understand that. But a lot of fighters exhibit poor technique from the start.

So what about if you’re the one fighting somebody who likes to throw nothing jabs? Here are some options:

  • The cross counter. This essentially means slipping to the left while throwing an overhand right at the opponent’s exposed chin before they have a chance to protect themselves. What makes this a favourite amongst MMA fighters is that it allows them to step forward while slipping to the left, thereby loading up their right hand with all of their body weight and momentum. It’s not elegant, but it hits like a sledgehammer. Don’t believe me? Stand up, take a boxing stance, and then move your front foot (it should be your left foot) forward and to the left while shifting your head to the left as well. Your entire body is now going forward, with the right shoulder coming around, so throw a looping right hand. Now imagine hitting somebody in the face with that.
  • The counter jab. If someone likes to throw nothing jabs, but you don’t want to swing for the fences (see the above), you can simply step forward and into a jab of your own while either slipping or blocking/parrying their jab. Since your jab is thrown with authority (especially if you’ve stepped into it), they are the one who is going to be getting hurt, particularly if they have the bad habit of moving their head too much when they punch (which is surprisingly common).
  • The counter hook. If they throw nothing jabs, then the odds are very good that they will not have their right hand (their rear hand) in the correct guard position. This is where you take your left hand (your front hand) and throw a hook at their head. The hook is a much heavier punch than the jab and can be thrown with great speed. You should be getting the better end of any trade (although you can also try to parry/block their jab with your right hand).

Out of all the things I see in MMA, the nothing jab is probably my least favourite. The only one that comes close is the “nothing leg kick” which is basically the leg kick equivalent (and is usually dealt with in similar fashion).

Mistakes and the Process of Improvement

Learning to write well is not easy. It can be a long and difficult process, and mistakes are often made along the way. But making mistakes is no reason to feel discouraged. In fact, makes mistakes is part of the process of improvement. Today, I’ll be taking a closer look at that process and some of the mistakes that you might make along the way. I’ll be paying particularly close attention to what those mistakes mean in the broader context of improvement.

In my opinion, there are four main elements to a good story:

  • Characters
  • Plot
  • Setting/Ideas
  • Technical proficiency

Each of these different elements has a tendency to produce different mistakes. However, the most common mistakes are seldom random. Indeed, the most common mistakes occur so frequently because they are signs of growth.

Characters

Creating engaging and believable character is crucial to writing a good story. The more that people care about the characters you create, the more likely they are to care about the story as a whole. Readers cannot fully appreciate a tragedy if they don’t care about the characters involved, and a romance will likely live or die based on how much the readers care about the characters.

So what tools do we have for portraying engaging and believable characters? Well, some of the most obvious tools are dialogue, gestures, inner thoughts, and behaviour. But putting all of these things together isn’t easy. Here are some common mistakes associated with characters:

  • Attempting to convey some sense of a character’s motivations or personality through overly elaborate or detailed dialogue
  • Trying to create unique characters but ending up with caricatures (note: unlike parody, this is not deliberate)
  • Overly elaborate or lengthy descriptions of characters and their backstories
  • Overuse of inner monologues

All of these are mistakes – but they are mistakes that people often make because they are trying to create better characters. Indeed, all four of these mistakes are usually committed in response to criticism.

For instance, a writer might be told that their characters don’t have unique voices in the dialogue. In other words, the writer is being told that all of their characters sound the same. A perfectly rational way to try to correct this is to write dialogue that conveys the characters’ motivations and personalities. But it is very easy to go overboard when doing this, which is why a lot of writers have dialogue that is overly elaborate and detailed. They are trying to fix one problem and end up creating another. With time and practice, however, they will learn to find a balance.

A similar approach can be used to understand why many writers attempting to improve come up with characters that are more like caricatures. We are told by a great many authorities on writing that every character should be unique. But how can we make each character unique? Well, the easiest way is to give everybody a few quirks to set them apart (e.g., differences in speech, mannerism, etc.). But the problem is that if these quirks are too subtle, the reader won’t notice them. So why not make them more obvious? Well, if the quirks are too obvious and too exaggerated, then the characters are no longer believable. They become caricatures. But making this mistake doesn’t have to be a bad thing – only by going too far can a writer learn how far is too far.

Having overly elaborate or lengthy descriptions of characters and their backstories is the most common mistakes related to character creation and development. It stems from another criticism that is typically levelled at novice writers: there isn’t enough detail about the characters. The problem with this criticism is that it is rarely put into context. A novice writer doesn’t know where to add extra detail. Should it be added to describing the appearance of the characters? Perhaps it should go into explaining the long and horrible histories of each character? Or perhaps every interaction between characters should be described down to the very minutiae of how many hairs are on each person’s head?

Writing is usually an intensely personal endeavour. Few writers feel comfortable sharing their work with others, and even fewer feel comfortable asking critics to provide a more detailed explanation of their criticism. As a result, an improving writer who has received criticism regarding a lack of detail will often respond by adding far too much detail across all aspects of their characters. Doing so ensures that they fixed the problem – but it also creates another problem. However, with continued feedback and practice, a writer should learn how to better strike a balance between brevity and detail. Indeed, as a writer grows, they will typically develop a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to better identify the areas where more detail is required.

The overuse of inner monologues occurs for much the same reason that the mistakes previously outlined occurs – readers may not feel that they know the characters very well. The writer will thus try to give them a better glimpse into the characters’ minds using the most straightforward and practical method available: inner monologues. But inner monologues are a fairly blunt way of telling readers what a character is thinking or feeling. This doesn’t mean that they are bad, but it is easy to use them too often or to make them too heavy-handed. Once again, however, it is a mistake that often leads to growth because it forces the writer to confront a weakness and to work on a solution. The solution may be imperfect at first, but over time, the writer is likely to become better at incorporating inner monologues into their stories. Furthermore, as a writer becomes more practiced at working with inner monologues, they should start to realise the limitations of inner monologues, leading them to seek out alternate methods of conveying their characters’ thoughts and feelings (e.g., through character interactions and mannerisms).

In summary, the most common mistakes that improving writers make with regards to characters have their roots in the most common criticisms received by writers about characters. These mistakes may be examples of poor writing, but they also lay the foundations for much better writing. In much the same way that someone learning to drive will make a lot of mistakes and over-correct for those mistakes, someone who is learning to write will over-correct in response to criticism. But like someone who has finally learned to drive properly, a writer will eventually learn to strike the correct balance if they continue to work hard and practice.

Plot

The plot is another integral part of a story. Although some types of stories are more reliant on a good plot than others (e.g., a detective story versus a slice-of-life story), a good plot is never a bad thing to have. Most of the plot-related mistakes I see (and have committed myself) can be tied to the conventions of storytelling.

As with any other long-lasting discipline, writing has developed certain “rules”. Many of these rules are genre specific and have come to be known as tropes or clichés. It goes without saying that not all of these rules are good. Some of them are actually quite bad. But some of them are good, and these good rules exist for a reason. Consider the concept of the “hero’s journey” – this is a story structure that has existed in one form or another for thousands of years. Clearly, it’s doing something right. So, here are some of the common mistakes associated with the plot of a story:

  • Plot lines that involve everyone being horrible and treacherous – not to improve the story, but to try and buck convention
  • Having too many plot twists or surprises in an effort to move past “conventional” plot structure
  • Trying to work with too many plot lines or to use a non-linear plotline in an bid to be unique or different

All three of these mistakes are very common. But once again, we should look not only at whether these mistakes are made but also at why these mistakes are made. I believe that all three stem from a common cause: rebellion against convention. It is goes almost without saying that a story that slavishly adheres to every single convention will end up boring. But a story that defies every single convention without a good reason can be even worse.

One of the oldest conventions in storytelling is that there are heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. This convention exists because it makes the story easier to tell and because it gives the readers a clear idea of whom they should cheer for. But a lot can be gained from creating a plot that goes beyond black and white to include shades of grey.

Perhaps the best contemporary example of a writer who takes advantage of moral ambiguity is G. R. R. Martin. Regardless of what one thinks of Game of Thrones (and I think rather highly of it), it is undeniable that the story derives a lot of its power from the twists and turns the plot takes – twists and turns that are only possible because the line between good and evil is blurred. However, as Martin’s writing has become more popular, I’ve noticed an increasing number of writers trying to copy his approach by creating plots marked by unrelenting treachery and betrayal. The problem is that almost none of these writers have Martin’s skill. If a plot is filled with nothing but betrayal and treachery, then it becomes every bit as predictable as a plot where there are clear heroes and villains.

Martin chose to include treachery and betrayal because they allowed him to write a better story. But simply including treachery and betrayal does not automatically make a story better. Hidden amongst all the treachery and betrayal of Game of Thrones is the fact that not everyone is treacherous and eager to betray others, and that is what makes the story work. In trying to avoid a world of good versus evil, too many improving writers simply create a world full of evil. This is not particularly interesting. What improving writers will develop with more experience (and this is what Martin does very well) is the ability to create a plot that includes good, evil, and everything in between.

The archetypical structure of a story is a topic that has been studied for decades. Indeed, no matter what genre you want to write, you should be able to find an in-depth analysis of what basic plot structure is required. One of the most tempting things for a novice writer is to try and come up with something new, to move beyond the established boundaries of the discipline. This desire can be very powerful, but conventional plot structures exist for a reason – they are highly effective, and it can be extremely difficult to create a plot that goes beyond this archetypical style.

The surprise twist is an excellent example of something that can either go brilliantly or horribly depending on the skill of the writer. A poorly written plot twist can leave the reader feeling cheated, as though the writer has simply pulled a rabbit out of a hat. A good plot twist will leave the reader nodding in fascination as they realise that all the pieces were there, but they just never noticed them. The most common mistake for novice writers is to try and include too many plot twists – but constantly contorting the plot runs the very real risk of damaging the coherence of the plot and becoming predictable. A writer who is trying to improve will often go overboard with the plot twists because they are trying to understand what makes a plot twist effective. As they learn how to make more effective plot twists, they should not feel the need to shoehorn one into every single chapter.

A conventional plot follows a linear structure and focuses primarily on one set of characters. By adding more plot lines and adopting a less conventional structure (e.g., multiple timelines, flashbacks, etc.), a writer has the chance to create a truly unique and engaging story. But the mistake that a lot of improving writers make is to fail to realise the answer to a simple question: what plot structure should a story have? The correct answer is: whatever plot structure most effectively serves that story.

When an improving or novice writer first comes across the idea of unconventional plot structures, they are likely to be tempted to try them. That is perfectly understandable. Multiple plot lines and non-linear plotlines sound amazing. But they are only amazing in the right story – and that is the critical point. It isn’t at all unusual to see improving writers make the mistake of trying to apply these techniques to stories that would have been better served with a normal plot structure. But that’s okay – making these mistakes is vital for improvement. The only way that a writer will learn what stories are best served by unconventional plot structures is to make the mistake of trying to shove unconventional plot structures into a story that doesn’t need them. Believe me, I’ve learned this the hard way.

Overall, the mistakes commonly made with regards to plot are mostly related to the understandable desire to buck convention and try new things. But convention usually exists for a reason, and although not all conventions are good, there are some that should be followed unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. An improving writer needs to make a few of these mistakes so they can learn to recognise when stories should follow conventions and when they should move past them.

Setting/Ideas

The setting of a story is the world in which it takes places. Creating that world is, in many ways, the hardest part of writing a story. All of the characters exist inside that world, and they and the plot are all bound by the rules and laws that govern how that world works. Likewise, the ideas and themes that run through a story will also influence how the setting takes shape. In order to explore certain themes or ideas, it may be necessary to create a world with a particular set of characteristics. For example, the controlling society of Brave New World was necessary so that the book could explore the themes it wanted to. Likewise, the dystopian society of The Hunger Games is also necessary for the discussion of certain themes and ideas.

Here are some of the most common idea/setting-related mistakes made by writers trying to improve:

  • Creating a world that is highly similar to an existing one
  • Creating an inconsistent world
  • Being heavy-handed with themes and ideas

Creating an entirely new world is extremely difficult. It’s no coincidence that most fantasy novels have at least a passing resemblance to medieval Europe or that most science fiction stories seem to be projections or forecasts of how the modern world will advance. It is also no coincidence that many novels appear to borrow, at least slightly, from other novels (e.g., Tolkien’s influence on high fantasy).

The reason that this kind of borrowing occurs, and the reason that so many novice and improving writers tend to participate in it more heavily than experienced writers, is that it is a lot easier to make small changes than to make big ones. For instance, if a writer has never written about a world with magic in it before, it is much easier for them to tweak an existing magical system rather than to create an entirely new one. Doing this allows them to focus on other aspects of the story (e.g., their descriptions of magic, the characters, the plot, etc.).

In short, one of the main reasons that many novice and improving writers create worlds that are highly similar to existing worlds, only with small changes, is that doing so allows them to work on the problem of world creation piece by piece. In one story, they might tweak how magic works. In the next story, they might tweak how magic works and throw in a few changes to how society works. In this way, they can gradually build up to creating their own unique world. Seen from this point of view, this isn’t a mistake so much as it is the middle of a long process of development.

Another common mistake amongst novices and improving writers is creating an inconsistent world. By inconsistent, I mean a world in which the rules and laws that govern how things work are not logically consistent (i.e., they conflict with the logic of the world in which the story operates). On the flipside of the writer who only makes small modifications to an existing world is the writer that tries to create an entirely brand new world. An entirely new world demands its own set of rules and laws, and these can often be quite complex. Without practice, it is very easy for a writer to create rules or laws that conflict with each other or combine to produce nonsensical situations and results. But this mistake is not a bad one to make – it is a sign that a writer is trying to create their own world. With more practice and a more systematic approach (e.g., by writing down notes and discussing it with others), the number of mistakes should gradually decrease until a writer can create their own world.

Being heavy-handed with themes and ideas is another mistake that is often symptomatic of a lack of experience and practice – both of which can be remedied in a relatively straightforward manner (more practice). Including themes and ideas in a story is easy – the hard part is doing it in a way that makes it feel natural as opposed to forced. This can be done in a number of ways (e.g., by having characters embody certain points of view), but all of these methods require a subtle touch. A character that spouts about communism every second paragraph will allow you to discuss communism – but it isn’t going to be a very productive discussion. In contrast, characters embedded in a communist society who grow up and gradually come to a fuller awareness of the political system through working their way up the ranks of the political class would provide a much better discussion – but it would also require a much softer touch and a better grasp of character, setting, and plot.

The key is to look at how a writer responds to making this mistake. The best response is to try and find a way to work the themes and ideas into the story in a natural or organic way. The worst response – the one that shows a writer is only interested in shoving ideas down the throats of the readers – is a writer that is more concerned with the ideological message than with portraying engaging and believable characters, a solid plot, and an interesting setting. Such a response tells the reader that the writer is more interested in talking about an idea than telling a story. Now, this can work if they are writing a manifesto of some kind, but if the reader is looking for something entertaining to read, they are likely to be put off.

The most common mistakes related to the setting/ideas are often signs of growth. Creating worlds is hard, and mistakes are to be expected. What is important is how a writer responds to make these mistakes. An improving writer will try and learn from a mistake, even if it produces a different mistake. Nobody is perfect, but with more practice, world building should become easier as an improving writer identifies the areas that give them difficulty and the areas they find easiest.

Technical Proficiency

Technical proficiency refers to the purely technical side of a writer’s writing – their punctuation, grammar, sentence composition, vocabulary, and so forth. What makes technical proficiency so tricky to evaluate is that some parts of it are highly amenable to brute force improvement (i.e., improvement through stringent practice) whilst others are highly resistant to it. Here are some of the most common mistakes

  • Poor punctuation and/or grammar
  • Limited vocabulary
  • Awkward writing style
  • Inconsistent tone/style

The easiest way to improve punctuation and grammar is to practice. This means doing things the hard way: proofreading your work repeatedly and consulting grammar resources whenever you’re not sure about something. This can be very time consuming and mentally draining, which is why a lot of writers I see trying to improve their punctuation and grammar suffer in other ways. The most common of these is that their writing becomes more robotic and sterile because they are focusing almost entirely on punctuation and grammar. Another possibility is that they go overboard with punctuation (e.g., commas absolutely everywhere). But both of these mistakes will decline as the punctuation and grammar becomes automatic. Think of how you learned to type for the first time. You probably had to look at the keys a lot. But once you got the hang of it, you didn’t have to watch your hands anymore. Punctuation and grammar are like that – once you get the hang of them, you don’t have to think about them anymore, and you can focus entirely on the content of your writing.

Vocabulary can also be brute forced in much the same way as punctuation and grammar. I know what a lot of people say about relying on dictionaries and thesauruses, but if that’s what helps a writer learn more words, then I’m all for it. The most common mistake here is for writers to fall in love with their growing vocabulary, resulting in prose that is florid, verbose, and a rather hideous shade of purple. Trust me, I’ve gone through this phase myself (and still go back there occasionally, and an improving writer will grow out of it. It’s the same way that a child who has just learned to tie their shoelaces will want to tie them as often as possible to show off their newly acquired skill.

Both awkward writing style and inconsistent tone/style stem from an improving writer’s attempts to identify the style that fits them best. I believe that almost every writer is naturally inclined toward one particular style, a style that matches their strengths as a writer. The problem is that it can be very hard to identify what that style is. As a result, improving writers will often try many different styles (often starting with the styles of authors they admire). Most of the time, using a style that doesn’t suit them will produce awkward writing – the kind that just reads really badly. Thus making this mistake isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the writer may simply be searching for the style that suits them. And even once they find that style, it may take them some time to master it (e.g., read the early work of an author versus their later work – there is often a substantial difference in quality).

Inconsistencies in tone and style often stem from much the same cause – an attempt to explore different tones and styles to find out which ones a writer is skilled in. This is perfectly normal behaviour, akin to the way that a tennis player might try hitting different shots from different parts of the court to see where they are most comfortable. What is most important is that the writer takes careful note of which styles they need work in and which they are already proficient in.

Technical proficiency is something that can – and should – be worked on. Many of the mistakes that improving writers make that are related to technical proficiency can be tied to their attempts to improve and explore their own abilities, both of which are things a novice or improving writer should do.

Summary

As you can see, novice and improving writers can make a lot of different mistakes. But what is important to realise is that they do not make these mistakes simply because they lack skill or practice. Instead, most of these mistakes are made during practice in an attempt to improve their skills. For this reason, there is no need to feel discouraged about making mistakes. Indeed, making these mistakes – and then learning from them – can lead to rapid improvement.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – the only time you fail is when you stop trying.

I hope you found this useful. If you want to know more about my thoughts on writing, you can find thosehere.

I also write original fiction (mostly fantasy). You can find that here. If you’re interested in some humorous fantasy, give Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an Elf a try. Trust me, it’ll put a smile on your face. If you want something more serious, try The Last Huntress.

Thinking About Fanfiction.net Story Analytics (Part 1)

I recently received the following question:

“A question on story analytics. Being new on FFnet, I don’t know what to expect. My first 2 stories featuring popular characters have gotten something like 900 views from 800 visitors over 2 days… and 3 reviews each. I’m grateful for the thoughtful and positive feedback. Just wondering if the writing is so meh that the vast majority have no opinion (even negative ones) on it at all. Do you look at your numbers, and how would you interpret them to identify areas for improvement?”

This is a very interesting question, and I’d like to break it down into a few parts:

  1. What constitutes a “successful” story in terms of hits, reviews, etc.?
  2. Can you use any of these numbers to help yourself improve, and if so, how?

The first question does not have an easy answer. From what I have observed the numbers that a story does depend on several main factors:

  • Which fandom the story belongs to
  • Which characters are involved in the story
  • What style/genre of story it is
  • How long the story is
  • How often the story is updated

The more people belong to a particular fandom, the larger your potential audience will be. For example, more people (total) read Naruto fan fiction than read King of Thorn fan fiction. However, this is complicated by the fact that a more popular fandom is also likely to have more stories, meaning there is more competition (assuming that people can only read a limited number of stories each day).

Consider the Naruto fandom. You could have the most brilliant story ever and it is quite possible that most people will never get the chance to read it since it will be buried in amongst all the other (~366,000) stories. In contrast, if you write an absolutely brilliant story for the Madlax fandom, it is highly unlikely that anyone will miss it since there are only 46 other stories for that fandom.

Thus simply writing in a popular fandom does not guarantee that the people who would enjoy your story will actually read it – they might never be able to find it amongst all the others.

A mid-sized fandom offers arguably the most favourable conditions for a budding writer who is eager for feedback since the community is still large enough that there are a lot of potential readers but also still small enough that the story is likely to be seen.

So how do we define a mid-sized fandom? It depends on what classification type is being used. For example, here are the story numbers for the top 5 most popular anime/manga:

  1. Naruto (366k = 366,000)
  2. Inuyasha (113k)
  3. Hetalia Axis Powers (105k)
  4. Bleach (78.4k)
  5. Yu-Gi-Oh (64.7k)

Now, let’s look at the top 5 most popular cartoons:

  1. Avatar: Last Airbender (38.4k)
  2. Teen Titans (36.9k)
  3. Transformers/Beast Wars (24.7k)
  4. My Little Pony (21.1k)
  5. Danny Phantom (17.9k)

The top 5 cartoons combined do not even add up to the most popular anime, and are not that much higher than the second-most popular anime. Heck the most popular cartoon would only come in at #11 for anime/manga.

The point here is that a mid-sized fandom for cartoons will be much smaller than a mid-sized fandom for anime/manga. As a result, you need to look at what classification you’re using and adjust your expectations accordingly.

To illustrate the potential effect of the size of a fandom on numbers, let’s have a look at the most popular Naruto stories versus the most popular Yu-Gi-Oh stories.

The highest number of reviews for a Naruto story is ~13.9k vs only 4.6k for Yu-Gi-Oh. The highest number of favourites is ~15.1k for Naruto vs 1.4k for Yu-Gi-Oh. And finally, the highest number of follows is 12.6k for Naruto vs 0.7k for Yu-Gi-Oh.

Clearly, the most popular stories from the bigger fandom have much higher numbers that the most popular stories from the smaller fandom. This, in my opinion, speaks to the power of audience size: more people are interested in Naruto fan fiction, hence the popular Naruto stories have more reviews, favourites, and follows.

Keep in mind, however, that these are the most popular stories. The number of Naruto stories with only a handful of reviews or follows vastly outnumbers those of Yu-Gi-Oh simply because a lot of Naruto stories are “lost” amongst all the others.

The characters that are the focus of a story are also important. It is a fact that in any given series, some characters are more interesting or popular with fans than others. In general, fans want to read more stories about these interest/popular characters.

Again the same dilemma emerges. If you write about a popular character, you have a much wider potential audience – but also more competition. However, if you write about a less popular character, you have a smaller audience – but less competition.

One exception to this is the rare story about a less popular character (or pairing) that is so brilliant that it becomes highly influential even amongst people who do not like that character/pairing. Indeed, some of the most popular stories are those that lay the foundations for non-canon pairings. For example, the popular Hermione/Draco pairing exists only in fan fiction – there is virtually no evidence whatsoever in canon to support it, but the pairing rapidly became popular and stories supporting it are amongst the most reviewed/followed/favourited in Harry Potter fandom.

To see how dramatic an effect the choice of characters can be, let’s pick the genre where it makes the most difference: the romantic genre. Shipping wars (relationship wars) are a notorious part of fandom wherein fans grab their proverbial stakes and pitchforks and attempt to enforce their chosen OTP (One True Pairing) upon the rest of the world. I will, once again, use Naruto as an example because it is the largest fandom with which I am reasonably familiar (Harry Potter with 690k is actually larger, but I’m not particularly familiar with the shipping wars over there).

The most popular Naruto/Hinata story has a staggering set of statistics 12.9k/15.1k/12.6k (reviews/favourites/follows).

The most popular Naruto/Tenten story has a much less impressive set of statistics: 1.9k/2.5k/1.3k.

As you can see shipping has a very real influence – the most popular Naruto/Hinata story crushes its Naruto/Tenten counterpart. But this is where things get interesting. There are only ~500 stories classified as Naruto/Tenten vs ~13.8k stories classified as Naruto/Hinata. A Naruto/Tenten story thus has a much better chance of not being lost in the crowd and can still garner significant numbers. This kind of discrepancy means that a newer writer, eager for feedback and notice, might want to consider a slightly less popular pairing – provided that it still has an audience of a reasonable size.

Turning to the question of genre, there is no doubt in my mind that some genres are more popular than others. In Naruto, the most popular stories by review/favourite/follows tend to be adventure or romance (or have no genre listed). I suspect that this varies slightly from fandom to fandom, but a lot of fan fiction stems from a kind of wish-fulfilment. For instance, if a pairing is heavily hinted at during a series but never taken to fruition, fan fiction can fill that void.

The Naruto/Hinata pairing is an example of this wish-fulfilment although perhaps the most dominant non-canon pairing I’ve ever seen (as a percentage) is the Maura/Jane pairing from Rizzoli and Isles which permeates the fandom despite it not being canon. Indeed, I would estimate that around 90% of all Rizzoli and Isles stories feature this pairing in some fashion.

In other words, the most popular genres are either those that extend what makes a series great (e.g., adventure for series like Naruto) or address things that the series does not (e.g., romance in Naruto).

However, this doesn’t mean that other genres cannot succeed. Every fandom has certain stories that are considered by the majority of fans as “good”. These are the stories that new fans are told about and encouraged to read by more experienced fans. Invariably some of these stories are the tear-jerkers (e.g., angst/tragedy), and while they do not seem to gather the massive numbers of the aforementioned genres, they can do very good numbers nonetheless.

Furthermore, it is also possible to identify areas of the fandom that are not getting the stories they want. A fandom is, in general, a collection of diverse individuals (diverse with regards to temperament, personality, etc.). As such, many fans will have tastes that are not being sated by the most common stories. If, for example, a fandom ceases to write angst/tragedy then the door is wide open for someone to write those things because there absolutely will be someone who will read and appreciate them. Likewise, if a fandom has been overrun by dark/broody stories, some of the most popular stories are those that focus on fluff/romance, serving needs that have gone unmet.

The length of a story can also impact what kind of numbers it does. In general, longer stories tend to do better numbers than shorter stories. This stems from a number of possible factors:

  • There is more content, which makes people like the story more
  • The story is updated multiple times (i.e., has multiple chapters), making it visible more often so that people can find it more easily
  • The story is long enough that readers require multiple visits to finish it (and multiple chapters opens the possibility for multiple reviews)
  • The story has enough going on that the reader wants to revisit it from time to time and read their favourite bits, much the same way that someone might pick out the favourite parts of a movie to watch over and over

This isn’t to say that shorter stories cannot do big numbers. Some can and do, but a causal perusal of the most popular stories in most fandoms shows that they are of above average length.

Does this mean that longer and longer is better? Absolutely not. Above a certain word length, increased length does not seem to help (indeed it may actually hinder since it becomes a huge investment of time that some are unwilling to make). From what I’ve seen, anything over 50,000 words is long enough for most of these effects to set in. Certainly, anything over 200,000 words is long enough to squeeze every possible ounce of the “length-effect” out of the story.

Closely related to story length is updating. In general, readers love having ready access to the story of their choice. Most of the highly popular stories either update frequently or, at least at one point, had a regular updating schedule. Stories that update very infrequently or sporadically can leave readers feeling frustrated and uncertain as to whether the story will ever finish. That said, this effect is not nearly as strong as some of the others I’ve mentioned. Indeed, I’ve noticed that readers will wait years (actual years) for an update to a story they love and then return in droves when the author begins updating again.

So what does this all mean? How do you judge if a story is successful or not? Well, let’s take a case study with the fanfiction.net fandom that I am most familiar with, the Final Fantasy XIII fandom.

Final Fantasy XIII is what I would call a mid-sized fandom. It ranks outside the top 20 in terms of popularity for games and features 3.4k stories (versus the 74k stories for Pokemon, the most popular game fandom).

The most highest number of reviews for any Final Fantasy XIII story is ~1000, the highest number of favourites is ~500, and the highest number of follows is ~350. These numbers are all, I would suggest, in line with a mid-sized fandom (adjusting for the smaller size of game fandoms relative to manga/anime).

So what would constitute a successful story? Well, what becomes clear from even a cursory examination of the statistics is that things are very top heavy. If we sort via review, there are 121 pages of stories. The 61st page should thus give us some idea of what the median number of reviews are (the average being a horrible way to measure central tendency in a distribution this heavily skewed).

The answer is actually pretty surprising. Every single story on 61st page has 7 reviews. Seven. What about if we do the same with favourites and follows? Well, here are the numbers. For favourites: 10. For follows: 4.

If we compare the top 10 stories in reviews/favourites/follows the trend that emerges is quite striking: the system is top heavy. If you look at just the first page of stories (sorted by review), you find that the difference between the ones at the top and at the bottom of just the first page is dramatic. The most popular stories are the most popular by a considerable margin.

So, what can I say about Final Fantasy XIII fan fiction? If your story has done better than 7/10/4 (reviews/favourites/followers) across its entire lifetime, then you are doing better than the median across all categories (a good thing). In the second part of this, I’ll talk more about what those numbers mean in terms of improvement, but here, I’ll leave it at that.

However, there is one factor that I haven’t considered yet, and it is a big one: the lifetime of a fandom. It is a sad fact that every fandom has ups and downs in popularity. In general, a fandom goes through four main stages:

  1. Initial foundation
  2. Expansion
  3. Stabilisation
  4. Contraction

The first stage describes when a fandom is very small. During the initial foundation, only those who are heavily invested in the fandom participate. It is not unusual for all members of the fandom who post on fanfiction.net to actually know each other and communicate regularly. These individuals will also typically provide leadership as the group expands.

The second stage describes the time when the fandom becomes increasingly popular as knowledge of the series/game/manga/etc permeates the public consciousness and strikes a chord. A classic example of this would be the effect of the Marvel movies on the Marvel fandom – few people (relatively speaking) knew who the Avengers were until the movie turned the Avengers into a fandom phenomenon. For video games, this is usually the period when the game is still new and exciting and everyone else is buying it. Fan fiction becomes far more popular at this stage, with many scrambling to become involved.

The third stage, stabilisation, refers to when the fandom has reached its zenith in terms of popularity and begins to plateau. This maturation phase typically involves the writing of the vast majority of fan fiction as the fandom stabilises and begin to look toward fan fiction and fan art to meet any needs that have not been met by the original source material (e.g., the desire for Fang/Lightning in the Final Fantasy XIII fandom).

The fourth stage, contraction, refers to the general tendency of fandoms to grow smaller again as they pass their zenith of popularity. However, this does not spell the death of the fandom. In any fandom, there are a certain portion of fans who remain interested, and many more who will continue to read fan fiction (but not write it). Depending on the specifics of the fandom, the contraction can be larger or smaller. Some fandoms may die, but others will stabilise at a smaller size (see e.g., the Harry Potter fandom which has retained much of its strength despite the series being over). The fan fiction produced during this phase is often of high quality as those writing are genuinely engaged with the source material and not simply trying to piggyback on the popularity of the source material.

This has consequences for the numbers that a story does because the numbers (reviews/favourites/follows) are cumulative. That is, they aggregate over time. Thus a story that has been out twice as long as another has had twice the time to accumulate numbers. Hence, if both stories are equally popular, then the older story will appear to have better numbers.

Here’s an interesting fact. Of the top 10 Final Fantasy XIII stories (as sorted by reviews) only one was started in the last 2 years (Lightning and Fang Sitting in a Tree, #6 at 462 reviews). Of that top 10, only four have been updated in the past year. Older stories appear to have a significant advantage, which I believe operates in the following manner:

  1. The story is initially published and proves to be popular
  2. The story is completed
  3. The story becomes part of the accepted collection of “good stories” by the fandom, meaning new fans are directed toward that story by other fans
  4. New fans use fanfiction.net’s search engine to look for the most popular stories (assuming those are the good ones), which leads them to these stories, thereby reinforcing their popularity (since if they are genuinely good AND highly visible, they should do great numbers)

This effect is not unlike that which applies to the “classics”. For instance, everyone knows about Lord of the Rings, and everyone knows that it is supposed to be good. Hence, everyone seeks it out to read it. Because it actually is good, these people then leave lots of favourable reviews about Lord of the Rings. In other words, a story, having established itself as a “classic” of the fandom, is at a tremendous advantage since it constitutes “required reading” for the fandom, thereby bolstering its numbers. Of course becoming a “classic” is not easy – having read the stories in the top 10, I will readily agree that all of them have their merits and deserve the attention they’ve gotten. Naturally, we can quibble about which story is the best, but it is easy to see why each of them has been popular (and it’s largely a matter of personal taste anyway).

Another factor, which I’ll talk about in more detail in the next part, is the impact that name recognition can have on numbers. To put it simply, if you’ve written good stories before, people are more willing to read any new stories that you have. If we look at the first page of stories (sorted by review), we find that of the top 25 most popular stories (by review) several authors appear multiple times. One author appears three times, and another appears four times.

Anyway, I’ll continue this in another post since this is already getting monstrously long.

*Note: The statistics cited in this post have all been gathered using fanfiction.net’s in-built search function and sorting function. I am very much aware that these engine have their flaws, but they remains good instruments for gauging rough trends. Furthermore, I also acknowledge that one particular problem is that many old stories have not been updated to include character/pairing information. However, I do not believe that these substantially change the overall picture presented by the data. I have also chosen to include all languages in the analysis since it should be obvious that my points about audience size apply to foreign languages (all of which have a smaller audience than English). Finally, stories are removed from fanfiction.net for a variety of reasons, and there have been several purges throughout the sites history (perhaps the most famous being the removal of stories featuring heavy hard-core explicit content). Such stories have not been included in this analysis.

*Note: I am also aware of the growing popularity of AO3. However, I am not familiar enough with trends on the site to comment on it in the manner that I have commented here. Furthermore, there also appear to be significant differences in the popularity of fandoms between fanfiction.net and AO3, which complicate the analysis. Indeed, I suspect that the demographics of the two websites have significant differences.

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