Posts Tagged ‘Writing Excuses’

I came across a fascinating article by David McRaney on survivorship bias. The overall point, that accounting for failure is critical to success, is well made, and the author uses a series of pointed examples. Not incidentally, the post also lays out a new-to-me part of World War Two history that includes a cabal of geniuses, women mathematicians, and the Department of War Math (ok, that last bit wasn’t its real name, but it should have been).

In World War Two, for example, the U.S. military tracked damage to returning bombers and wanted to beef up the most frequently-hit areas. A statistician named Abraham Wald pointed out that the surviving planes made it back despite that damage. The spots where they were unscathed, the ones no one had thought to record, were in fact the most vulnerable; as McRaney sums up, “that’s where the planes that didn’t make it back were hit.”

I found the history interesting in its own right, and if you have ever been tempted by the (admittedly seductive) trap of thinking, “Well, my grandfather breakfasted on salt pork and hot gin for ninety years, so I can eat whatever I want and still live forever,” I recommend a read.

“You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.“

That same logic applies to evaluating advice from diet gurus, celebrity CEOs and millionaire app designers. Skill plays a part, of course, but it turns out that overall, what a lot of successful people have in common could be termed luck. That may be a bit discouraging, but the good news is that such luck can be courted if you’re willing to take a longer-term view.

“The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out.”

Instead of looking for that one big break, think of the world as a series of possibilities; the more options you try, the greater your chance of success. Resist tunnel vision, “wade into the sea of random chance,” and stay open to new ideas and situations. That sounds pretty good, actually.

If you’re interested in how survivorship bias applies to writers and writing careers, check out this post by Tobias Buckell and the related Writing Excuses podcast in glorious audio or text.

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Writing is simple, right? Writing is considered a basic skill in our society and as such, people often look down on it as, well, a basic skill. Sadly, thinking that you can write an effective book/story/memoir/etc. because you are literate is like saying that because you can run down the block, you have what it takes to do the Boston Marathon.

As always, the devil is in the details. Sorting out those details, by understanding the process and which of the many aspects of art and craft you should work on, is key to becoming (and staying) a writer.

Much of what I read and write is speculative and genre fiction, and a few of my specific suggestions and references are colored accordingly. If speculative fiction isn’t your thing that doesn’t mean you can’t use these references. It just means that you may need to ask yourself questions like, “This is great, but how would an alien sea monkey’s need for interstellar love translate to a tailor in modern-day Calcutta?” All the better to exercise your creative faculties, I say. As you’ll see, though, most writing advice translates well across boundaries.

Here are a few pointers to get you started…

Resources I’ve Found Useful:

It will shock no one to learn that there are also a lot of writing resources on the web; often the problem is sorting through them all. Search for talks, interviews and essays by authors whose work speaks to you, see if their ideas or suggestions offer fuel for your fires. I’ve mentioned some links in previous discussions on writing and creativity already, and there are many (many, many) more. To get you started:


Life rewards action…. That story isn’t going to unf*ck itself.
— Chuck Wendig [asterisk mine]

There are all kinds of writers. Fiction vs. not, certainly, but also binge writers, morning writers, middle of the night writers, must have my pencils just so writers, deadline writers and cabin in the woods writers, can only write on used envelope writers, take your pick. Find what works for you.

Then write.

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