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Never trust a truss… ‘I’ve busted me truss and me hernia is givin’ me royal gyp…’

Or am I thinking of turkeys? It’s been a good year for them, and I gather you can now get the self-plucking, self-drawing, self-stuffing and definitely self-trussing model. They probably roast themselves too. In case you were behind the news I believe you can get them from SFWA. They thought World Con San Jose use of pre-crime so good they also had to refuse Jon Del Arroz the membership he qualifies for. Hmm. Advice for turkeys: Bake. That. Cake.

‘We’re not refusing Joe Soap entry to our public organization because he’s gay/black/trans… Based on the behavior of and online statements by this individual over the preceding year or so, which the credentials committee believes is inconsistent with the obligations that our members have to one another, the committee has determined that it has good and sufficient cause to deny this membership.’

Yeah. I can see that one working. “Can you in fact prove that you do not discriminate on the basis of XYZ? That your membership reflects the demographic proportions of XYZ?” Which is tricky when it comes to measurable things. Politics, for instance.

SFWA turkey sticks finger in a collar suddenly trussing it. “Well, uh… we don’t ask.”

“But records are available (about politics) about party and campaign donations. It would be easy to prove, one way or the other. As it happens we’ve taken your membership list and cross referenced it…”

If the turkey wins – then the door is open for any public organization to do likewise, so the turkey loses.  The turkey has to lose to maintain a precedent. Which is rough on the turkey. Maybe ‘smart’ would have been to avoided the fight in the first place.

What a truss of rotten tomatoes.

But actually I was thinking of the kind of truss, the engineering sort, the kind to which mathematics and physics apply. And hernias. Trust me on this, I’ve been moving some heavy trusses. They’re, besides heavy (in this case, anyway – 16 foot long, steel pipe) fascinating things, and one of the un-noticed ways the Romans really changed our world.

You see a truss takes a relatively weak material – on its own – like a 16 foot two inch diameter pipe – which can’t hold itself rigid, and brace it onto another relatively weak material, like another 16 foot two inch pipe. Now the two pipes alone are not very strong, and if you bridged 16 feet over a stream with them… would bend under their own weight. If you tried to walk over them they’d drop you into the drink with a splash – and probably bend the pipes. There’s a bunch of even skinnier bits that on their own would bend before you got over the stream.

Yet… put together right, they become one strong structure – capable of keeping a lot more than your weight out of the stream. The strength of the sum of its parts put together right is far, far greater than the components are on their own.

The corollary of this is that if you damage one component of the entire structure enough, well, it very rapidly returns to being the same strength as each component on its own. A fire-fighter’s nightmare – And more than that it extends into politics, publishing, going to sea, life. You name it. I expect the current mess in US politics to fall in an ugly heap once one of the elements fails. Whether it’s a politicized FBI agent or a compliant media, as soon as one of what was vastly strong together breaks… Publishing, the same, but further advanced. Either one of the big five will fail, or their lock on distribution will fly apart, retail crack further, their lock on gatekeeping (via agents and editors) finally fail. The little interior beams – called webs — of patronage running reviews and fixing awards become worthless. Already it’s nothing like it was 10 years back, when that was an almost rock-solid truss. The opposite is true with Amazon, increasingly building its truss, stronger.

Of course the other fact is that you have to know which direction the stress is going to come from if you’re going to make an effective truss. A planar truss, where all the components are in two dimensions, if you apply force in another dimension – the truss is as strong as the individual components – which is to say, compared to its strength in the two dimensions it was built for, puny. Amazon’s truss could buckle in the face of a different technological challenge from a direction in which they’re not strong (peer-to-peer trading, for example).

So why am I boring you about trusses? I mean, they are fascinating to me right now, because I’m building, but this is about writing, right?

Indeed. And it’s about something that so seldom gets talked about in writing posts. We talk about how to deal with the different components, how to make a plot work, how to write the setting, how to build interesting characters and how to do dialogue. But we really haven’t brought up synthesis. How to use one to support the other/s.

So often the strength of a book is sum of its parts, correctly put together. You can still achieve a strong book if the only ‘strong’ component is for example, the characters. Or the dialogue. Or the plot. It’s less and less likely with things I consider ‘webs’ in building my books – the setting, elements like romantic attachment, or devices/gadgetry (the one ring for example). These are strong in themselves, but not a story. But seriously, it is possible to achieve so much more, if these all interlock and form one structure. For a simple example: if your plot depends on the characters’ traits, bound by dialogue, romance and the setting. These apply to both the plot and the character, and bind them into a single story.

So the challenge is not just to think ‘how does what I’m doing to character affect the character – but how does it affect the plot. And how can I make it depend on the plot and plot on it. And how do I tie these together?

Look – good story tellers do all of this instinctively. You may be that person. But honestly I’ve yet to meet a good story-teller who balances and leans them into each other perfectly without effort. Rotten story tellers – like me – can learn to structure their stories so the major elements actually carry each other.

And no doubt some editor will come and damage one component (because good structural editors are rarer than good steak).

Oh well. That’s the breaks. But a good truss, used right, is harder to break.


  1. Gotta wonder, how long will it be before the institutions are fully broken?

    January 22, 2018
    • Depends. The Big Five (four…three…) think they are the epitome of publishing. Trouble is they have failed to check their rear view mirrors. The monolithic beast though takes time to realize it’s dead before collapsing in a heap.

      January 22, 2018
      • I dunno, they may be looking in the rear view mirror and forgetting to look ahead. They don’t seem to see the way the future is curving away from the path they expected.

        January 22, 2018
    • I think they may linger a while, but that vast strength they once had… is gone.

      January 22, 2018
    • thephantom182 #

      Shadowdancer said: “Gotta wonder, how long will it be before the institutions are fully broken?”

      In the USA and Canada, each country now has one book large book chain left. Canada has Chapters/Indigo, the USA has Barnes & Noble which is closing stores. There’s a good chance that the Big Five publishers won’t have a national retail outlet in the USA in the next five years. Can a publisher still work with no retail side? How?

      The comic book universe, Marvel comics got it SO wrong in2016/2017 that they had to re-tool in the summer and change all their titles. Both companies have been shipping a lot of titles with under 15,000 copies per issue. This is with a smash-hit Marvel comic book movie EVERY YEAR to boost sales.

      Fandom is now two fandoms. Those who bow toward WorldCon, and everybody else. The awards system is likewise divided, with the “official” old-guard like Locus revealing themselves to be bitter Leftist partisans.

      It’s broken now. The question is how long it can roll on inertia.

      January 22, 2018
      • Draven #

        the *high-selling* comics are now getting sales numbers that would have gotten any book cancelled in the early 90s

        January 22, 2018
  2. Which is why good writing comes from practice. Practice the art and the craft in equal measure. Art is being creative, craft is the application of skill and techniques.

    Of course, good books come from the experience of writing bad books, but that’s why practice is so important.

    January 22, 2018
    • THIS! Bravo!

      January 22, 2018
      • Yes! As do good comics.

        Even the muses haven’t touched you with divine fire today, you can still make progress by slogging away and not getting discouraged.

        January 23, 2018
    • Several hundred thousand words later, I returned to my dissertation to see about revising it for publication. Arrrgh! How could the committee have passed such dreadful prose? Ick, ick, ick. And they said it was quite well written. The dissertation had not gotten any worse, but I’d written a lot more and could see the problems far more easily. So I count those 85K words as part of my “lousy million” needed to get to mostly-good writing.

      January 22, 2018
      • sam57l0 #

        Academese is what they wanted and you gave it to them. Don’t blame yourself.

        January 22, 2018
      • I once spent a lot of time revising an academic paper for readability.

        That was a bad mistake.

        Turgid, unclear prose is a feature in that milieu. If it’s easy to understand, it can’t be “scholarly”.

        Pierre Bourdieu, I’m looking in your direction.

        I cite Bourdieu because there actually is a “there there” (unlike some of the other posturing nonsense that passes for scholarship today).

        But oh, how you will suffer on the trip.

        January 23, 2018
        • My one attempt at academic publishing was rejected because, among other things, the notation was too simple. Umm..yeah. Because I was thinking sideways to 70 odd years of academic tradition, simple was too hard to understand.

          January 23, 2018
  3. C4c

    January 22, 2018
  4. Oh yeah, Dave? Quit stealing my post topics! 😉

    [I’m going to do a four part series on millieu, idea, character, and event books, and how you very, very rarely have a pure one or the other, and why.]

    January 22, 2018
    • Great Minds?

      January 22, 2018
    • But stealing your post topics is my metier 🙂

      January 22, 2018
  5. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    It’s been discussed here that most creative writing programs are pretty worthless for real world industrial writing of fiction.

    You are talking about a story being more than the sum of its parts, so obviously a graduate Systems Engineering program is the ticket. Nope.

    A lot of the market wants products that are fairly similar to prior art. So rather than needing to develop entirely new types of complex story, we can afford to rely on prior art to tell us a lot about how the parts can interact. Plus, Systems Engineering tools are not optimized for the fiction task, so doing it solely to write fiction is a bad RoI of effort.

    From listening, it sounds like the supply of competent editors might be a bottleneck for the fiction industry. What do we know about aptitudes, training, and skillset? Perhaps we could develop a better method of training them? Obviously, sensitivity/insensitivity readers are the easiest. (“You haven’t said enough offensive things about the PC shibboleths on this list.” “I’m writing historical fiction using the evils of the French revolution.”) Copy editors are perhaps a well solved problem; that traditional industry is trying to cut costs there does not mean that economy is necessary there. Structural? I’ve got ignorance on top of cluelessness there.

    January 22, 2018
    • “So rather than needing to develop entirely new types of complex story, we can afford to rely on prior art to tell us a lot about how the parts can interact.”

      I got by for years, just being very familiar with the good stuff from the past. Imitation, flattery – and excellent experience…

      January 22, 2018
    • Draven #

      as long as the method for training them doesnt involve a creative writing or english/creative writing major…

      January 22, 2018
    • ‘Perhaps we could develop a better method of training them? ‘
      The first question might well be to ask ‘what training?’ What skills (not learned on the job, by trial and error, guesswork.) are needed to get the job? After all NO college teaches this, and English lit is near useless for it. The second question might be ‘what tools?’ The engineer has many, mostly mathematical. The editor has almost none – a few sales data that they lack the statistical training to interpret. ‘And the third question is what ongoing update, refreshment and assessment of skills?’ Nearly every other profession requires that. Authors put themselves through it. Editors… And in this lies one of the great weaknesses of Trad.

      January 22, 2018
      • There’s always the Benjamin Franklin method, which seems applicable to editors as well as writers.

        View at

        January 23, 2018
      • Larry Correia has referenced a writing programme at his alma mater (Though Off campus at this time) that was effective.

        Based on the quality and productivity of its grads, I bet it can be taught.

        But don’t kid yourself: Good teaching is a whole different skill set than good [Fill in topic here], though you have to be good enough at the topic in question to succeed at it yourself.

        It’s like translation work: ideally you’re cradle fluent in both languages, and read and write them at the level your book is written.

        January 23, 2018
  6. And then the materials still need to be used correctly. “Concrete doesn’t stretch!”… but it sure can take a heckuva compression load. But, yes, it is/will be interesting (from a distance!) to watch the cascade failure when that one first Truly Critical part finally breaks… and then the next, and the next, and…

    But yeah, book, I want that to all keep working together, or else my reaction is “That CAN’T WORK!” which is a heckuva thing for a mythical creature to rail about.

    January 22, 2018
    • TRX #

      We watched a James Bond movie a few years ago. In Bondland, concrete is quite flammable, and concrete buildings go up in roaring gouts of flame…

      CGI: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should.

      January 22, 2018
    • tprice #

      Watching the Cascade Failure is why implosion of buildings and bridges are so much fun to watch. A relatively minor explosion takes out a few key parts and then slowly, faster, REALLY FAST the whole thing turns into a pile of rubble.

      January 22, 2018
  7. “…using prior art…”

    Curiously, with bridges and trusses there is an extensive bit of historical experience. People keep building bigger and bigger bridges until one fine day a previously-neglected failure mode becomes significant and the bridge enters airplane mode. Unfortunately, bridges in airplane mode usually have inadequate lift and execute Uncontrolled Flight Into Ground. Failure mode? For example, the long rigid tube when large enough has poor resistance to torsion along its main axis and so to speak unrolls, like one of these supermarket ready-to-bake roll canisters.

    January 22, 2018
    • sam57l0 #

      “Galloping Gertie”, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, can be seen on YouTube doing the Shimmy Shimmy Shake.

      January 22, 2018
      • Often cited in physics texts I used to read as an example of resonance. I understand it had been doing the dance since it had been built, hence its nickname, but one day…

        January 22, 2018
        • They used a wind tunnel, which was new and good. Alas, their tunnel couldn’t take into account the particular quirks of that location. And yes, it shimmied from day one.

          I’ve walked on a pedestrian suspension bridge that was supposed to do that. Um, no, no thank you. I don’t like wiggly bridges.

          January 22, 2018
          • Stable suspension bridges move around enough already!

            January 22, 2018
          • Swinging bridges are fun, when swinging within reason.

            January 22, 2018
  8. Wow, that statement was very brave. “A certain writer”? Seriously?

    What next? “Mr. –l A….”? Colonel Dash of the Dash-shires?

    January 22, 2018
  9. Nice plug for Aristotle at the end there!

    January 23, 2018

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