Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"The Audacity of Hope" or "Why Variable Ratio Reinforcement Keeps You Writing"

Hope is a powerful thing, as every writer knows. Hope can keep readers coming back book after book to see whether or not their favorite characters really do fall in love. It can keep someone turning pages all night even though he has work in the morning because he can't believe there's no way out of the dark place you've taken your lead. Hope also keeps writers putting words on the page even though there's no guarantee that the blog entry, article, short story, novella, or novel will bring in a single, red cent. The kind of writers who are banking on selling books, getting ad clicks, or otherwise earning a living from the things they create for the public to consume do this every, single day.

Why do writers do this to themselves?

Hope. Hope, and a concept called variable ratio reinforcement.

That, and robbing banks is dangerous.
 What is Variable Ratio Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is a psychological term that is used to describe situations where someone's behavior is strengthened. If a child reaches for a hot stove and gets her hand slapped, that punishment reinforces the idea that reaching for the stove is a bad thing that shouldn't be done. On the other hand if a student earns $20 for every A on her report card, then that reward will make her even more likely to shoot for that 4.0 honor roll. When someone takes an action the result of that action leads to behavior being reinforced or discouraged. The more often the result happens the more solidly the behavior is reinforced.

So where does the irregular part come in?

In addition to rewards and punishments there's a reinforcement schedule. This schedule is how often that behavior is reinforced. If every time someone breaks a rule he gets punished, then there's a certainty that bad things will happen if certain actions are taken. That's a fixed ratio. A fixed interval is applying a certain reinforcement after a certain amount of time; getting a yearly raise every year one maintains a job, for instance. Variable ratio reinforcement is when you perform a certain action, but you don't know how many times you have to perform it before you get rewarded. This is essentially how slot machines work, but it's also how a lot of writing works as well.

How Do You Mean?


If you keep rolling this until your character succeeds, you already understand.
This concept works best when you use examples. When I wrote an article titled "Is Thou Shalt Not Suffer A With To Live A Biblical Translation Error?" (which you can still read here if you're of a mind) it got a lot of page views. I looked at the subject, comments, and content, and decided that writing about religion and how our modern interpretations of it are skewed was a smart way to make some money. So I published several other articles including one about a devil named Azazel from the Old Testament (found right here), and another about the Satanic Panic, one of America's great moral panics from the 1980s (still live right here).

These articles did get some page views, but I didn't recreate the months-long splash and more-than-decent royalty payments I'd earned from the first article. They got fewer views overall, and those views dropped off more quickly. Because I'd seen that an article about religion could generate a lot of traffic though I kept at it. I never managed to recreate the original article's success, and the website got a great deal of content out of me it might not otherwise have received for a lot less payment.

This works the same with book sales. Let's say that you wrote a book about a vampire private detective, and that book shot through the roof and made you a lot of money. Your next, logical step would be to write another book to try and make the lightning strike twice. Even if subsequent books didn't do as well, or if they did terribly, knowing it's possible is sometimes enough to keep you running on the hamster wheel just a little bit longer than you otherwise might.

But I've Never Had Any Successes Like That!

What if I told you that you didn't need to actually experience the success in question to make this effect happen? Knowing that just one pull on the slot machine can make you rich is often enough to make you put your last quarter in the slot. If you've actually won a lot of money on a slot machine before though then you're a lot more likely to keep pulling that one-armed bandit until you either run out of money or you win.

Writers do this all the time, except the slot machine is the publisher and the coins you're hoping for are royalties.

This is easily illustrated in short story anthologies. One anthology might offer $30 for an accepted story, and another one will offer an even split of the royalties. Even if the story is an electronic-only anthology from a first-time publisher, there's a little bug in the back of most writers' heads that tells them royalties might be a better bet if this book takes off. It also means more than one payment, if all things go well. More often than not books in this scenario sell enough copies that no one but the publisher makes a profit, and the writers end up being paid $0.68 each quarter for a year.

Why do we do this? Because the next one might be what hits it big!

Like this book right here, for instance!
The media doesn't make this any easier on us as writers either. Just look on the Internet and you see stories about self-publishing authors who make six-figure incomes off trashy romance and monster porn. That monster porn thing isn't a joke either; read this in case you thought I was fucking with you.

What's The Problem With Hope?

Part of the problem is that I'm a hard-bitten, cynical bastard who likes spitting in your eye. The other part of the problem is that hope does more than keep your energy up, and your outlook positive. Hope, much like cocaine and meth, can blur your energy and make it hard to remain focused and realistic. You can get so high on your own hopes and the potential of victory that it's easy to forget you're betting black on a roulette wheel with a disproportionate amount of crimson on it.

Is it possible for your short story or novel to springboard into national or international fame even though you're an indie author no one's ever heard of with no one to help advertise your story or spread the word about it? Yes, it is. It's happened, as the news and the Internet are only too happy to point out. But the chances of it happening are astronomical.

Keep your hope, by all means. I'll be the first to admit that hope of infecting the world at large mixed with a genuine love of my story (and a touch of spite, if I'm honest) is the cocktail that keeps me going on some projects. But it's important to make sure that you're not just jerking the lever and hoping against hope that the Bestseller Gods take pity and shower you with big sales, TV interviews, and book deals for sequels. If that's the kind of thing you want it's time to grab a shovel and start laying your foundation. Hope is just as useful, but a lot less necessary, when you've actually done the work to build a readership, earn a place with a good publisher, and made certain to refine your craft until you can cut right into your readers' hearts and guts with it.


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