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Gathering Fieldstones with Energy

by Gerald M. Weinberg

Adapted from Chapter 4 of Weinberg on Writing. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. See below for copyright notice.

Why I Am Not Quite As Rich and Famous As Scott Adams

Without a doubt, the most frequent question put to authors is, "How long does it take to write a book?" To someone who has written more than one book, this question makes about as much sense as "How long does it take to make a trip?"

Early in my career, I discovered that what most of these people really mean by the question is, "How long does it take to write down a book?" That is, How long does it take to type all those words? But typing all those words -- though most intimidating to most people -- is not most of the work of writing a book. Most of the work is gathering the fieldstones.

Some years ago, Scott Adams, the creator of "Dilbert," was one of roughly 8,000 employees working at the San Ramon office of Pacific Bell. During many of those years, Dani and I were consulting regularly at the same San Ramon building, often in Scott's department. Thus, Scott and I were exposed to the same replicated cubicles, the same idiotic memos, the same pointy-haired bosses -- in short, the same cultural craziness. But from those experiences, Scott created a comic strip that entertained millions and made him rich and famous. I often ask myself, "Why Scott? Why not me?"

During his tenure at PacBell, Scott was gathering fieldstones for his "Dilbert" wall, but I was gathering fieldstones at PacBell to use in my software engineering books. Around that same time, I actually tried to write a cartoon strip -- "Bugsy Coder" -- based on similar materials drawn from the same source. If success had been a matter of who had the better source of fieldstones, I should have been the clear winner. I was a consultant, and PacBell was only one of many clients, while Scott was confined to gathering from one building. So, the difference couldn't have been in our sources.

. . . The difference, I believe, is that Scott and I are different people. We walk through the fields of life noticing different stones. Out of a billion stones that pass our way each day, Scott notices some that are different from the ones I notice -- and these become the fieldstones out of which his success is built. Of course, I notice some that Scott doesn't notice -- to create my own success. But even when we notice the same stone, we probably assign it different importance, different energy.

The Energy Principle

You can judge for yourself whether or not I'm envious of Scott Adams' success, but like most authors, I'm not indifferent to my own success. That's why I was a trifle upset when I read a book review written by my good friend Dan Starr. About somebody else's book, he wrote, "This book is a gold mine." The next time I saw him, I asked him why he never called one of my books a gold mine.

"You know what a gold mine is like," he replied. "There are a few gold nuggets, but you have to sift through tons of worthless tailings to find them." I was starting to feel better, but then he added, "Your books are more like coal mines."

"Oh?" was all I could muster.

"Yes. You know what a coal mine is like. Every shovelful contains something worthwhile. Every one."

I'm satisfied to be writing coal mines. Oh, sure, I once imagined that I could write a book in which every sentence, every word, would be 24-karat gold, but nobody can sustain that level for an entire book. Even The Greatest Book Ever Written has long, boring, repetitious passages that not even the most ardent evangelist would ever quote. So, if even God won't write a solid gold book, I'm content to drop that particular fantasy.

Fieldstone writing, properly done, produces coal mines -- and sometimes coal miners do find flecks of gold in their shovels. I'm satisfied if my readers find some good coal. If they find a gold nugget, that's a bonus, but I don't take credit for putting gold there. I don't try to write in gold. Even so, some of my writing students have struck rich veins of gold in their coal mines.

And how do I know if my students have struck gold, or even coal? I know from their response. The stone itself is not the key to effective writing. The key to effective writing is the human emotional response to the stone. As a writer, if I respond to a particular stone with tears of joy or sadness, I know that others will, too.

If I don't respond, my readers probably won't either. That's the secret of the Fieldstone Method: Always be guided by emotional responses, or, as Fieldstone writers say, by the energy -- the heat that the coal provides when it burns inside of you.

I call this secret the Energy Principle, though some of my students prefer to call it the Response Principle.

Gathering material for your writing provides the first of many applications of the Energy Principle. When you notice a potential stone, turn your mind away from the stone's details. Instead, turn inward and notice your response.

But perhaps you are skeptical of the Energy Principle. Many people have difficulty believing that the secret isn't in the stone, but in the response to the stone. I suppose I had the same difficulty until I had a transforming experience in the San Francisco International Airport. We were seeing some friends off for Macao, but their flight was delayed. We adjourned to the coffee shop. We had hoped for a few moments of quiet good-byes, but we were disturbed by the screams of a three-year-old child at the next table.

I've always been rather sensitive to child abuse, so I turned to see what torture was being inflicted on this helpless toddler. To my astonishment, the "torturer" was the child's mother trying to force him to eat vanilla ice cream!

Like a Zen monk, I felt the flash of enlightenment. If you can teach a three-year-old to hate ice cream, then human beings are capable of any response to any stimulus. I knew then that nothing I would ever write would please all of the people all of the time, or even some of the time. All that's important is that some of the people respond some of the time -- sufficiently often to keep my publisher happy.

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This excerpt from Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method [ISBN: 0-932633-65-X] appears by permission of Dorset House Publishing. Copyright © 2006 by Gerald M. Weinberg. All rights reserved. See http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/wow.html. The material contained in this file may be shared for noncommercial purposes only, nonexclusively, provided that this Copyright Notice always appears with it. This material may not be combined with advertisements, online or in print, without explicit permission from Dorset House Publishing. For copies of the printed book or for permissions, contact Dorset House Publishing, 1-800-342-6657, 212-620-4053, http://www.dorsethouse.com, info@dorsethouse.com, New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B, New York, NY 10027 USA. Additional rights limitations apply, as presented in the Legal Disclaimer posted at http://www.dorsethouse.com/legal.html.



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