The Algorithm of Love
I have spent 39 years reducing writing to X’s and O’s.
Or, rather, N’s and O’s.
Let me explain that.
I am a huge football fan. I have great memories of Sundays when it was raining outside in Washington (where it can REALLY rain!), my dad and I sitting in front of the black and white TV, and watching the game. Sometimes, when the cameras made an unintentional swipe around the tiny stadiums, it seemed there were more players on the field than fans in the stands.
Given the sport’s popularity, all of that has changed, of course.
Except the memories.
Because I lost my dad, very suddenly, when I was thirteen.
In case you’re not a fan of football – and many wives hate it, with good reason – it’s a game in which every player has to play a precise role in every play. Those plays can be mapped on a board. They become algorithmic. The ultimate goal is to win, but the real goal is to execute every play perfectly. That’s impossible, but that’s the dream.
So what has that to do with writing?
Like a coach, I see process as an organization I can map in my head. And that’s what for the past 40 years I have been trying to do for teaching writing: to reduce the mystery of the craft to an algorithm.
Not to take the mystery out of it, I hope you understand.
But to reduce the mystery.
Because I want to make the craft accessible to as many people as possible.
I need to explain that.
I began teaching writing in 1970. In 1972, I was by far the youngest faculty member in the college’s English department. I was tasked with evaluating the composition textbooks we had received from hopeful publishers. Fine . . . except there were nearly 400 texts!
I didn’t complain. I was young and enthusiastic. And not tenured.
That task changed my life.
Every textbook had the same flaw: They did not show students how to identify an effective subject.
Subject selection fell into three groups. Some did not show limited subjects at all. Some gave subject suggestions (often with subjects that were not focused) and told students to limit the subject. Some told students to write about themselves – even though most writing is interpersonal and not intrapersonal.
Years later, I spent 14 years studying the history of teaching writing. I learned that Aristotle had said that anyone can learn effective communication, and he outlined a step-by-step process for achieving that. He showed that communication (for our purposes let’s reduce that to writing) consists of a series of two-variable relationships. Jack loves Jill. Then you add a cause, and complete what is called an enthymeme: Jack loves Jill because of their adventure up the hill.
However, Aristotle’s mentor, Plato, disagreed with his pupil’s dream. Athens had just lost the Peloponnesian war to Sparta, and Plato was desperately looking for a leader that would bring his city-state back to its ascendancy. (Pericles, the Athenian leader, had died in a plague during the war.) Plato wasn’t interested in the common man. He wanted THE man. And leaders by their nature are born communicators.
Ergo, for Plato writing is a talent.
For Aristotle, it is a skill. That skill includes those who are talented.
Jump ahead nineteen centuries.
The Western world is in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Social upheaval is everywhere. Cities are miasmas blanketed in smog. Working conditions are so terrible they transcend disbelief.
The Romantics, led by Wordsworth and his best friend, Coleridge, react. So do the Shelleys and their best friend, Gordon, Lord Byron. In Scotland, Keats joins the fray.
They blame the social ills on science, since it produced technology. They blame science on Aristotle, since he created the Scientific Method. They want to turn to the philosophy of Plato, who felt that all goodness is within us.
And they make a second assertion that is to change the teaching of writing.
Platonists to the core, they insist that writing is a product of talent, of genius. It’s a solitary act, they say, best performed in isolation.
In America, the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harold Childs, head of Harvard’s English department, join the English voices. They throw out Aristotle’s writing method. The result is a change from teaching writing step-by-step to having students write whatever comes to mind. Because, you see, it’s all a product of genius, and it’s a process performed in isolation.
Consequently, Harvard adopts a five-paragraph essay in order to determine which students, having communicative genius, are allowed entrance. They base that construct on an ancient Greek construct called the epicheireme, which had five parts, not five paragraphs, since it was meant for speeches, not for the written word. (Moreover, a speech was not required to have all five parts.) But none of that mattered. The faculty had been mandated to create the entrance exam, and they did.
At the time, in keeping with the image of the Industrial Revolution and of America’s post-Civil War program for becoming a world power, faculty were thought of as cogs in a great wheel. Writing classes were huge. Writing teachers often had to correct a couple hundred student essays, called themes, per week. To keep what little sanity they had, they simply looked for five sentences per submission and skimmed the rest if they read it at all. The act of writing was an act of genius, after all, so there was no need to teach writing: you merely scanned what students produced in isolation.
But other teachers did not realize that the five-paragraph essay was at best a test and at worst a mechanism to keep the great wheel of higher education running like a factory. They became teaching the five-paragraph essay as a godlike form. The Harvard faculty, to its credit, eighteen months later declared the method invalid. But Pandora’s box had been opened. Their efforts to stop the teaching of the five-paragraph essay went unnoticed.
Okay, what does this digression have to do with writing romance?
A number of years ago it occurred to me that any writing, not just fiction writing, can be expressed as O + N. O stands for Old Information – basic information the intended reader probably already knows about OR probably doesn’t care about. The N stands for New Information – basic information the intended reader probably doesn’t know about AND is probably interested in.
Notice all the probably’s.
Aristotle, I learned after I had developed my idea, had said that communication is based on probability. We analyze our intended audience’s understandings and needs, and communicate accordingly.
For me, the result reduces to this equation:
O + O = poor subject
O + N (or N + O) = good subject
N + N = great subject.
That may seem trivial, but the results have stunned American education. I have used the equation to turn Siberian-Yupik (Eskimo) students from a whaling village on a blizzard-swept island in the Bering Sea into national academic champions – twice. I have used it to turn non-writers into international champions in fiction writing and national champions in essay writing. And until I retired from summer teaching two years ago, for two decades I used the equation to meld Western thinking and indigenous thinking so that Alaska Native students from remote areas, and often from communities of a couple hundred or so, could be successful at the top universities in the nation. Because rural Alaska desperately needs educated people. (But that’s the subject of another discussion.)
In romance writing: we can use the equation to identify the subject, or What Statement, aka “assertion” in rhetorical theory. Since all fiction involves a problem to be solved, add the verb phrase had a problem with: Jill had a problem with Jack.
Run the formula. The reader knows nothing about Jill and Jack, so you have Jill = O. Jack = O.
Seems simplistic, but when I run the formula on a lot of fiction I’ve examined, the equation is obvious. The reader has heard it before. If you are new to writing – in other words, if you don’t have a name to help carry the day – you have a problem. For example:
Jill, a housewife with a lisp, has a problem with Jack, a fireman with great pecs.
O + O.
Jill, a vampire with a lisp, has a problem with Jack, a werewolf with great pecs.
O + O.
The lisp and the pecs aren’t going to carry the day.
From my perspective, what happens is that the person writing (PW) – as distinguished from a writer – unconsciously assumes that writing is a talent and that engaging in writing is an act of genius. Instead of analyzing ideas, PWs just plunge in. (That they then use the Web to foist their creations onto the general public is a sad by-product.)
The first step: put on your big girl panties and reduce your heroine and hero to their core. Express them in the shortest of sentences. My latest: Naomi, a Caribbean-born physician suffering from guilt-induced post-traumatic stress disorder, has a problem with Jean-Paul, a Madagascar widower and tribal prince fighting to save aye-aye lemurs.
Now add a Why. You will end up with what is called an enthymeme, a construct Aristotle referred to as “the heart of communication.” In layman’s terms it becomes What because Why.
If you are examining your characters closely and then examining your plot, the result can be expressed as N + N because Y: N (New heroine) has a problem with N (New hero) because of Y, with Y being the WHY, the plot mechanism.
My characters + basic is: Naomi, a Caribbean-born physician suffering from guilt-induced post-traumatic stress disorder, has a problem with Jean-Paul, a Madagascar widower tribal prince fighting to save aye-aye lemurs, because she involves him after turning down the proposal of the godfather of the Dahalo, the Madagascar Mafia, not realizing that Dahalo creed demands that they kidnap, rape, and murder any woman who rejects them.
Now I have to finish writing it.