How QuarkXPress 2016 changes the DTP game

QuarkXPress 2016 was released today.

It’s been my great privilege to work with the Quark team as one of their testers in the weeks leading up to it. You may have seen my post before about conversion to native objects. That is a game changer. There is more, though. For the first time, we can create seamless HTML5 apps straight from desktop publishing software. It’s been tried before, in a number of ways. But the result has always been clunky, sub-standard, not quite right.

Quark now changes all of that. You can turn a relatively simple print publication into a web-app for the iPad, other tablets or smartphones in about six clicks. You can turn it into an interactive one in about half an hour. Of course, like all things interactive, the magic comes when you develop specific resources that make the most of it. You can put any audio on, but pristine audio recorded in a studio (even a home studio, with proper equipment and sound-damping) will help to perfect it, whereas substandard audio or (worse) a standard audio track that everyone knows will dissolve the magic. The point is that print suddenly goes Harry Potter—like those photographs which people wander in and out of. Combine it with Flixels or other looping video stills, and you have something that will bring people back again and again.

QuarkXPress 2016 has a lot of other new features. If you want to know what they are, you could do worse than buy my book: Desk Top Publishing with QuarkXPress 2016. Heck, if you desperately want to know and can’t afford to buy the book, email me and I’ll let you have a look at the PDF. There may also be an HTML5 version coming…

The thing is, it isn’t Quark’s new features that take it right past Adobe InDesign. It’s the other things.

User responsive

The Quark interface has always run quicker than InDesign’s, but that’s not what I mean here. Quark the company is exceptionally responsive to its users. Maybe you’re saying it needed to be: Quark did have the reputation of being aloof, even arrogant. I have to say that I never really engaged with Quark as an organisation back in the 2000s when this was supposed to be the case, except occasional contact when I upgraded. (I see from my account that I have been upgrading since 1997.) A year ago, though, I joined Quark’s Facebook group. There are about 1,200 people on it. Half the posts are by users, and half the posts are by Quark’s own team, including developers, quality controllers, and the guy in charge of the whole QuarkXPress outfit. It’s quite unlike any other commercial Facebook group (or forum) I’ve ever been part of. On occasion I’ve seen bugs reported by users and fixed by Quark’s engineers on the same day. Obviously this doesn’t always happen, especially not for feature requests, and there are still people who are insisting that the one feature they need has to be the next one implemented. Even so, the willingness to help, sort out problems, give advice and generally make it fun if quite unparalleled.

This goes through to the new features themselves. About eighteen months ago, someone rang me up from Quark (long before I got involved with them) and asked me what I thought of their App Studio. App Studio makes smartphone and tablet native apps from Quark documents. I told her I thought it looked really good, but it was far too expensive and I couldn’t imagine any client ever wanting to fork out for it. Actually, I can think of a few clients now who would be best off pursuing that route, but that’s what I said at the time. “What do you think we should do, then?” she said. “Make it free,” I said. “Let me publish HTML web-apps, you know, the kind that were all the rage when the iPhone first came out before native apps did.” The kind of thing, for example, that we’re seeing increasingly with Hive and IFTT.

Eighteen months later, HTML5 publishing does exactly that—exactly, even down to the level that you can prepare your app for HTML5 publishing, put it out there, and have the App Studio version available later without having to recode.

You may or may not want that, but it’s an example of the phenomenal responsiveness I’ve experienced. The key new features, HTML5 and native vector conversion, are probably driven more by business need than by user requests, but most of the rest have been prioritised based on what people said they wanted. It’s done very simply by Facebook polling. I wanted colour transformations in Open Type so I could use the Chartwell fonts. I voted for that, it’s now in there. Others wanted the eye-dropper tool back. It’s now back. Others wanted an improvement to footnotes. They’ve been improved. Still others wanted fit-box-to-text. It’s in there. The list goes on and on. I haven’t got everything I wanted yet, but I’ve got more of what I wanted from this software release than any release of any other software I’ve seen before—probably because this is the first time anybody asked me what I wanted.

Without wishing to talk Adobe or others down, this is not what we usually experience. The subscription model for Adobe particularly keeps delivering incremental upgrades to software that I don’t actually need, which, in turn, stop plugins working that I actually rely on. To upgrade all of my plugins would cost thousands, even if the upgrades were available, which they often aren’t.

Quark has also been working with its users to debug. When Mac OS X El Capitan came out, Quark was the first to have a (free) El Capitan-ready upgrade. Not all the Xtensions worked, so Quark’s team brokered conversations between Extensis, one of the main sufferers, and its users. The problems were quickly solved.

Speaking of that, if you do join that group, be careful what you say about Xtensions. You’ll find that if you start saying ‘this Xtension is rubbish’, you’ll actually have the guy who owns the company which makes it respond to you. Politely, of course, and they work hard to fix problems, but it’s a good reason not to mouth-off. Generally, people don’t.

Buy once, keep forever

Quark always used to be an expensive product. It still is, in certain ways. It is not, and never will be, bargain basement ‘my-first-DTP’. Cost of first acquisition is ludicrously cheap for students, quite cheap for not-for-profits, but a fair whack for everyone else. Upgrades, though, are very reasonably priced. Any version of QuarkXPress, including version 1, lets you upgrade to the current version at the same price. If you have QuarkXPress 2015, you upgrade for half that price, which, coincidentally, is the same as the not-for-profit price. By my calculation, staying up to date with QuarkXPress costs me about £10 a month, but there’s no obligation to do that. Quark has kept on unofficially supporting the older versions, so that even version 9 still works on El Capitan. There are people on the Facebook group stolidly refusing to upgrade from version 7, and they’re still getting same courteous help and advice, though not the bug fixes (even Quark has to stop somewhere).

When InDesign came out, it was given away for free. First literally for free, and then bundled with Creative Suite, and subsequently Creative Cloud, so that if you need both Photoshop and Illustrator, it was cheaper to get the whole bundle. It did this while Quark was struggling with the transition to OS X, and a lot of people were sticking with Mac OS 9 and QuarkXpress 4 or even 3.32. It was a good piece of business by Adobe. They had no legacy users to keep happy, they were able to construct the whole thing from the ground up as OS X native, and they could still make money by selling people upgrades that they didn’t necessarily need, but which gave them the brand new, more-or-less free, InDesign.

The publishing world went wild for it. InDesign had so many more exciting features. And it was free. People used to tell me that InDesign could do so much that Quark couldn’t. When we checked, it was usually that the current version of InDesign could do a lot of things that the five-year old version of Quark they had used before couldn’t. Well, ok. As I say, it was a good piece of business by Adobe.

There were three things that held me back. I was still specifying QuarkXPress for my design teams. First, InDesign was slow. That shouldn’t trouble you now, because computers move so fast now that everything is quick. Even so, productivity was key to what we were doing. Second, the additional features were fun features for designers, but as the budget holder and the guy who actually had to deliver projects within a brand, they weren’t useful features as far as I was concerned. Glowing text did not match our brand (which was actually the UK’s biggest brand—I’ll leave you to check my CV to see which it was). I wanted designers constructing creative solutions from the ground up, rather than applying an effect to overcome problems in the layout. Third, I had very serious doubts about how long InDesign would stay free.

In a sense, of course, it still is. If you subscribe to Creative Cloud (and I still do, and I use Illustrator and Photoshop every day), then the general bundle which is cheapest if you need the other main design applications includes InDesign at no extra cost. But the cost of keeping up to date with Adobe Creative Cloud is steep. £450 a year. You can do better in your first year if you take all of their offers, but the cost mounts. I don’t actually need any new features. There’s been nothing (except for El Capitan compatibility) which has interested me since CS6. But I still keep paying—really only for Photoshop and Illustrator, as I only use InDesign when forced to, and abandoned Lightroom years ago in favour of the superior Capture One and Media Pro combination, which Lightroom can’t touch.

So, £450 a year for features in Illustrator and Photoshop I don’t need, which is £225 each. If I was going to make InDesign my DTP package, that would be £150 a year per application. The same as Quark—except that I only have to upgrade Quark if I want the new features, and I never get a new version of the software imposed on me (as happened to me with CC 2015) which wipes out all my settings and stops my plugins working. Yes, that’s right—you can keep all of your old versions of QuarkXPress running.

Deep publishing

My third big, serious reason for pressing the advantages of QuarkXPress is the deep publishing features, especially Job Jackets. If you are managing a brand, job jackets let you get to your results consistently and quickly, and have them evaluated not just in terms of what will work through a pre-press RIP, but in terms of brand compliance. I can have a rule that pops up a warning that I’ve included an off-book colour or out-of-specification font. You can effectively include all the instructions for a temp or a new hire in the document tickets themselves.

If you are working with lots of brands, as I do, Job Jackets are absolutely golden. Whether the brand has a specification document or not (many are merely ideas in the mind of the brand owner), you can build everything in, and create and evaluate documents rapidly without even remembering (which can be very hard when you come back to a brand after a long time away). Creative Cloud, of course, can save styles and templates, and make swatches and graphics portable across the web, but it can’t do anything like Job Jackets.

QuarkXPress is the low end of what Quark Software Inc., does. Quark Software Inc., is about massive systems that serve enormous enterprises, where QuarkXPress itself is the front end for template editing. Effective brand management is and always will be built into QuarkXPress. Creative Cloud — and I’m not knocking it by saying this — isn’t really about that. It wants to be exciting to designers and hobbyists, offering the best value bundle of software (and it is, if you really want to use Premiere instead of Avid, and Adobe’s recording software instead of Logic or Pro Tools, and Lightroom instead of Capture One) suitable for professional applications. Photoshop is still king of the hill for images, and Illustrator for illustrations—though Affinity is catching up fast in terms of features—but, for the rest, the bundle is the second-best for most things it does. Even Dreamweaver, which is arguably the best pure HTML editor out there, is losing ground to more specialist applications. These days it’s all about Content Management Systems, and true coders use plain text anyway.

What all this means is that Quark Software Inc., is always going to be the leader in deep publishing, simply because no one else does what it does. The surface charms of InDesign are obvious—though many of them are equally available, sometimes with more function, in QuarkXPress—but, at the deeper level, Quark is the winner, for me at least.

Add to all that the new features, which InDesign shows no signs of matching, and, for me, QuarkXPress has re-emerged as the true winner in desktop publishing. And also in desk top publishing—a distinction which my book explains. Oh, go on and order it.

Why QuarkXPress 2016 will change my workflow for ever

QuarkXPress 2016 is due for imminent release. It has a lot of new features. One of them — based on my pre-test of the Final Release candidate — will change my workflow for ever.

It’s this: QuarkXPress now pastes graphics from other applications, and converts them into native Quark objects. It will do the same thing (if asked) with EPS files, PDFs and others.

Sound like something everything else already does? Well, not really.

Illustrator and InDesign already happily cross copy into each other. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that they are part of the same Adobe Creative Suite. The problem comes when you try pasting from Excel into either of them. People supplying files for design love Excel. They can quickly make graphs that look so good. The problem is, when you paste them into Illustrator, the text turns to garbage. It’s generally quicker to remake graph in Illustrator rather than to correct all the garbage. InDesign just pastes an unusable low-resolution image of the chart.

It’s not just Excel. InDesign gives up when trying to import and convert even a relatively simple map, derived from GIS software. Illustrator will do it, but it retains so much extraneous stuff that the files are huge and cumbersome. The same is true trying to open general document PDFs in Illustrator. There are so many unnecessary bits and pieces that it takes up to twenty minutes to extract a simple chart.

Until now, QuarkXPress resolutely refused to convert anything except text. It was a Desk Top Publishing package, and you imported graphics print-ready, and used them like that.

From version 2016, that changes.

QuarkXPress will now take most kinds of graphics — including the nightmare Excel graphs — and convert them into a group of useable objects straight off. It’s pretty intelligent about text. Some applications still try to send stuff across as images, but QuarkXPress will convert even them if you save as PDF. Files derived from Illustrator or InDesign, which are much better behaved, work without incident either pasted or imported and converted. Files from Magic Maps — even ones which Illustrator gets sniffy about — convert as well. With PDF files, you can limit conversion to just the section of the page that you are interested in, resulting in clean stuff that you can use straight away.

But why?

But why, you may ask. Why not just use Excel graphics? Why convert anything? Surely vector graphics, like PDFs and EPS files, are fully scalable anyway. Why not just use them as they are?

The answer comes down to brand and document consistency. It is possible to persuade Excel to use brand compliant RGB colours, but it is tedious, especially if someone has sent you the file using whatever colour scheme came out of the box. Getting it to use Pantone colours is much more difficult. Then there’s fonts. Excel (and quite a few other applications) really don’t like having huge numbers of fonts, and quite often refuse to recognise some of them. You can (and should) use a font manager such as FontExplorer Pro to keep things under control, but given the hundreds of unrequired fonts that new bits of software insist on installing, it’s a bit of a chore. So, sometimes the brand-compliant font you want to use just doesn’t appear in Excel.

If working in Illustrator, you should certainly be able to get the colours and the fonts right, but what about the font size? On revision number six of a complex business document, you suddenly need to resize the graphic on page 14 to 43% of the original size. No problem for an EPS file, an AI or a PDF, except that the fonts are now the wrong size. If you’ve worked (as you should) hard to have a rigorously consistent design grid with harmonious type sizes, suddenly having things appear in 6.37 point or 9.22 is going to make everything messy. Often, with graphics created for a PowerPoint presentation and supplied as PDF, the size won’t even be that, it will be 2.33 point: absolutely illegible in print, and not even resolvable with a magnifying glass if printed on an office printer-copier, inkjet or laser.

It’s embarrassing to see how often illegible text appears even in printed books by major business publishing houses.

And then there’s proof-corrections. You’re working on a document and the proof-reader helpfully spots that there are misspellings in the graphics. Fine, you go back to the Illustrator originals. This is ok, if cumbersome, until you go to a graphic from an earlier version of Illustrator, and the dialog box appears saying ‘to preserve appearance, some of your text has been outlined’. At that point, you’re stuck with having to retype it anyway. In QuarkXPress 2016, you can manage all the corrections as you go.

Is this really such a big deal?

When I was first told that this would be an upcoming feature, I thought ‘fine, Quark is catching up’. It wasn’t until I started working with it that I discovered just how deep Quark has gone with it. My go-to workhorse for transmuting graphics of all origins has always been Illustrator. It’s not until I worked with Quark’s implementation that I realised what a smooth, seamless workflow would really do. Although Illustrator is pretty good at converting things, it can end up with dozens of layers of nested groups, and, in many cases, text converted into thousands of individual letters—and that’s not counting the Excel, Word and PowerPoint text which comes across as rubbish.

QuarkXPress 2016 just does it. True, it isn’t 100% with everything: there are so many odd applications out there with their own view of what should go onto the clipboard, and QuarkXPress can only convert what it is sent. Still, for almost all of those applications, you can export as PDF and QXP will have a really good go at converting them. I’m still playing around with it, as the Final Master preview has only been available for a few days. So far, Quark keeps up with Illustrator for all but the most complex map files, and the results — most especially from Microsoft applications — are dramatically cleaner and more useful.

This isn’t just graphics. QuarkXPress 2016 will import an entire PDF page and convert it into a layout that you can immediately use. Suddenly, every PDF you ever produced, including the ones from Corel Ventura, can be the basis of a new document. You can copy an entire page from InDesign and start working immediately with that. In all cases, all the brand colours will be brought into your colour palette.

Why I use QuarkXPress

I’ve owned Adobe InDesign right from the very first edition, and have it on my system as part of my Adobe CC subscription. And yet I always use QuarkXPress, unless a client absolutely requires me to work with InDesign. When I was running graphics departments, I always specified QuarkXPress as the Desk Top Publishing platform. During the same period, many design houses moved over to InDesign, largely ‘because it was free’ — Adobe’s price structuring meant that you paid the same price to own a whole suite of stuff as to just own Photoshop and Illustrator. More on that in a minute.

It mainly used to be about speed. QuarkXPress runs faster than pretty much every edition of InDesign (I’m on a Mac, and can’t speak for Windows PCs). That isn’t so much an issue these days. Computers are now so fast, and have so much memory, that things don’t grind to a halt like they used to do. Certainly, though, Quark has always been more productive for me.

InDesign does offer a lot of features, such as DataMerge, which are available in Quark only as additional extensions. The flip side of this is that Quark offers some nifty features of its own, such as Super Step and Repeat, ShapeMaker and advanced grids which InDesign doesn’t. The ‘obvious’ reason for using InDesign, aside from cost, which I’ll come back to, was that it was supposed to work like Photoshop and Illustrator, so there would be less to learn. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t. Some features superficially resemble Illustrator, but, deep down, you can see it’s a different beast.

Quark’s big advantage, which becomes more important the more that you try to create consistent brands and rapid, error-proof workflows, is consistency. InDesign does allow you to use style sheets, of course, and Quark does allow you to format every single bit of text from the measurements panel. However, consistency is baked into Quark, whereas it always seems a bit like the icing in InDesign. The biggest example of this is Quark’s Job Jacket functionality. Casual users will find this strange, even alien, but if you are supervising not just a print job but an entire rebrand, Job Jackets enable you to create consistency across a complete portfolio, and then to make changes across every document, just by changing the job jacket. You can also use it to impose rules about minimum font sizes, what fonts are permitted, what colours, and so on — all the things which are so hard to evaluate prior to print, but so crucial to consistent branding. InDesign can pre-flight as well, but it pre-flights according to technical rules for reproduction. Quark’s pre-flighting does that, and more.


The big draw for InDesign was cost. You really can’t say fairer than ‘free’. Or can you? When ID was introduced, it was a genuinely zero cost add-on to Creative Suite, which was itself cheaper than buying the upgrade for both Illustrator and Photoshop, neither of which had realistic competitors. It’s still as cheap to get the whole CC bundle as to own Illustrator, Photoshop and Acrobat Pro separately, but the costs have started to spiral. An annual subscription, excluding VAT, comes in the region of £456 for Adobe Creative Cloud. You no longer have the option of buying the software outright and keeping it. Adobe would argue that you get access to lots more things with it, and you do, but many of them are things already covered by other software, or things you would never actually use. True, you get all the upgrades and updates but, since CS3, there have been no upgrades to Photoshop or Illustrator that are actually useful to me, except compatibility with the latest operating system. Every update breaks plugins that I rely on.

QuarkXPress has a more traditional model. You buy the software, it’s yours to keep. The initial entry price is steep, but the upgrade price is low. You can upgrade from any version of Quark to 2016 for the same price, except if you’re upgrading from 2015 it’s half the upgrade price. Ring them up and haggle, and you might get it for even less. If you want to skip an upgrade, that’s up to you.

By my reckoning, keeping up with Quark on an annual basis costs about £150 a year — if you choose to upgrade every time. Version 9 still runs on the latest version of OS X. Quark doesn’t officially support older versions on newer operating systems, but it does release patches, and has done, so that versions 9, 10 and 2015 run on El Capitan. That means that, without actually promising it, Quark will have four versions of its software, spanning five years, running on the latest Macs. If the features of QuarkXPress 2016 are compelling enough for you, you can go straight from version 9 to 2016 for about £300 — effectively a cost of £60 a year.

If you work for a not-for-profit (not just registered charities), or are in education, the full version comes at more or less the upgrade price.

Other stuff in QuarkXPress 2016

The new version doesn’t just come with conversion into native objects. It now fully supports Open Type stylistic sets and multi-colour Open Type transformations, has multi-coloured gradients which can also be applied through item styles, improves its footnoting, introduces better cross-referencing, fits boxes to text, brings back the Eye Dropper—previously an Xtension— introduces dynamic guides, improves content variables, and, perhaps biggest of all, entirely revamps its digital publishing so that you can directly export HTML5 web apps or web pages, as well as better Kindle documents and ePubs. Importantly, all the previous Xtensins are compatible with the new version without having to wait for upgrades.  These are all great features. The one that changes my workflow totally, though, is the ability to bring the graphics into the document and manage them consistently from there. Things will never be the same again.

Disclaimer—this is based on the pre-release version of QuarkXPress. I have paid for my upgrade to 2016 and will not be receiving a free copy.

Three puzzle plots: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A Wizard of Earthsea, and the Alchemist

Puzzle plots and what they can mean for new writers

We tend to associate puzzle plots with the mystery stories. Indeed, the main difference between a mystery and a crime thriller is that we expect the clues to be presented to us in a mystery, but in such a way that we do not guess the end before the detective does. In a crime thriller, we expect the course of events to reveal the culprit at the climax: we do not feel cheated if, in retrospect, there was not enough information to work out the answer beforehand.

However, I would argue that an element of the puzzle plot can be a powerful element in other kinds of writing. There are a number of examples we could take, but I want to focus here on the medieval verse romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anon, approx 1390, Ursula K Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea, and Paolo Coelho’s the Alchemist.

Puzzle plots are extended riddles, where the answer is implicit or deducible from the question. By this I do not mean to compare them with the 1980s ‘blank’ riddles, where a scenario is proposed, and the respondent has to ask questions of the questioner to come to the right answer.

What weighs many tonnes, but falls to the ground without making a sound?

Answer: snow.

The snow riddle is a true riddle because everything in the question is literally true, and it points to a unique answer: trees, falling rocks and other large objects make a bang. Rain drums as it falls. Planes do not ‘fall’, except when they crash. Falling leaves rustle. Only snow falls.

However, it is not merely a question, because the way it is presented is elliptical. By emphasising the sound it doesn’t make, the hearer is sent on the path of thinking about all the things that do make a sound. If the question had been: “What is white and falls to the ground?” then the answer would be easy.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is challenged to a ‘return blow’ game by an enormous green knight. The supernatural uncanniness of the knight makes his uncle King Arthur advise him to strike well so that there will be no return blow. Gawain duly beheads the knight, but, after the head has rolled among the trestle tables, the knight’s body walks over, picks it up, and tells him to be at the Green Chapel a year hence. Having done his best to kill the eery knight, Gawain can expect no mercy.

When the time comes, he sets off on a long journey, despairing that he will ever find the place. As Christmas arrives, he finds a castle where the lord, Sir Bercilak, puts him for the knight, and tells him that the Green Chapel is quite nearby, and he can take him there on the appointed day, three days hence. In the meantime, he proposes a game: an exchange of winnings.

On day one, Bercilak goes out hunting. In the mean time, his wife comes into Gawain’s bedroom and flirts with him. In the end, he allows her to kiss him but no more. Bercilak, on his return, presents him with the game he has hunted, and Gawain kisses him in return.

On day two, the same thing happens. The wife presses him harder, but, in the end, all he has to do is kiss Bercilak to receive in return the huntsman’s trophy.

On day three, the wife goes all out to seduce Gawain, but he resists, accepting only more kisses. In the end, she persuades him to accept her girdle, in green and gold, which she says prevents a man from being killed, no matter what an enemy does to him. However, he must not pass this gift on. At the end of the day, Gawain receives a fox skin, gives Sir Bercilak the kisses, but conceals the girdle.

The following day, being the day appointed, he goes to the Green Chapel, where the giant green knight appears with his axe. Gawain puts his head on the block, but when the knight swings the axe, he flinches. The knight chides him, and Gawain complains that ‘when my head comes off my shoulders, I cannot put it back again’. The knight makes two false blows, but on the third, he strikes, nicking Gawain’s neck. Gawain springs up, ready to defend himself, now that the return blow has been given, but the knight laughs.

The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the same Sir Bercilak, and the first two blows did not land because on the first two days Sir Gawain faithfully delivered his gifts in accordance with his promise. The third blow was a nick, because although Gawain broke his promise, it was in accepting the girdle, not in allowing the wife to seduce him.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains one of my favourite stories. It appears to be an epic tale of marvels. It is only at the end that we discover this was a puzzle plot, where the answer to the first test depends on the answer to the second test.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, the story is premised on the Rule of Names—knowing a ‘true’ name gives a wizard the power to cast spells over another wizard, so wizards keep their names carefully concealed. However, the titular wizard Ged, casting a spell beyond his abilities, summons up a spirit, and with it comes a nameless creature from the underworld, which then, for the rest of the book, seeks to take Ged over. Because the creature knows Ged’s own name, it defeats him at each encounter. The puzzle is: how can a creature without a name be defeated, since names are needed to cast magic. After many adventures, Ged finally turns to face the creature, and names it with his own name, thus completing the puzzle.


In the Alchemist, the protagonist dreams of treasure, and goes out following his dream. This takes him through many remarkable adventures, but when he finally finds the place he is looking for, he learns that the real treasure is buried in the place he first had the dream. He returns, and obtains it. Although the treasure was close at hand, he could not have obtained it without going on the remarkable adventures, and these adventures give meaning to the quest.

All three of these adventures are magical. I am not suggesting that puzzle plots must either be mysteries or magic. Rather, I’ve selected them because, in each case, the reader cannot bring extrinsic knowledge to the question. A Wizard of Earthsea presents us with a logical system, the Rule of Names, where the solution is an extrapolation of the problem. Sir Gawain relies on the intellectual code of chivalry, but it gives its own definition to it. Its original readers would have been familiar with the code, but not with specifically what one is supposed to do in a magical adventure: magic takes us out of the rules of the ordinary, except, of course, that the tale reveals that the rules should be followed in exactly the same way as in ordinary life. The Alchemist has its own simple rule: the universe conspires to help if you pursue your dream. It is only after the protagonist, Santiago, has pursued it extensively that the universe gives up its secret.

These puzzle plots differ from mysteries in the sense that the reader could not actually solve the puzzle. Nonetheless, the reader, along with the protagonist, is challenged to solve the puzzle, or, at the least, the intellectual appeal is that we are facing an intractable situation for which we require a solution.

They differ from mere tales of wonder in that the solutions are genuine solutions within the world of the book. They are not in any sense dei ex machinis: extraneous elements from the cosmology introduced to solve the problem.

The response the author is looking for in a puzzle plot is “Oh, that is clever”, rather than “I saw that coming”. However, it is a cleverness of appropriateness. In a world full of wonders and adventures, things worked out in exactly the way they logically would have worked out, which happens to be the way that, in plot terms, they should have worked out.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am a big fan of plot. Whenever I make a list of favourite books, they are always books with strong plots. I like the Odyssey, but no so much the Iliad, Great Expectations but not so much Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Fahrenheit 451 but not Nineteen-eighty-four. 20th century (and 21st century) anti-plot literary fiction leaves me entirely cold.

To return to Great Expectations for a moment, this is an excellent example of a literary, character-driven puzzle plot. Pip faces a mystery for most of the story: who is his unknown benefactor. He assumes it is Miss Havisham, but everything that we, the reader, know about Miss Havisham and her protegée suggests that this is highly unlikely. In the event, it is the convict Magwitch who is Pip’s secret benefactor—something which completely overturns his view of himself, but which we, the reader, could probably have worked out if only we had not been so engrossed in the storytelling.

There is a particular satisfaction in the ‘answer in the question’ nature of the Great Expectations plot. Much as I enjoyed Dombey and Son, it does not have the same sense of completion. By the end of Dombey, we are essentially concluding with the happiness of everyone who is left.

We are now in an era of new writing. Up to seven hundred years ago, books survived because people copied them by hand. Sir Gawain survives only in one manuscript. It is quite possible that, until its re-discover and popularisation in the 20th century, only a handful of people had ever read it. Six hundred years ago, books survived because a printer printed them. In the voracious climate of the Reformation, many books were printed simply because a printer could get hold of them. A hundred years ago, books survived because a publisher took them on. Twenty years ago, books only survived if an agent took them on. The now-famous story of JK Rowling’s multiple rejections show just how fragile that process is.

Today, anyone can write a book and get it onto the web as Kindle or eBook, and onto the shelves as a physical book at no cost to themselves via Amazon’s CreateSpace. Print-on-demand has finally come of age: it is possible to make a profit, even when you only sell one copy.

More fiction is written today than even before. The success of social programmes such as NaNoWriMo and writers’ sites such as Figment and Wattpad mean that authors who would never have had access to publication and the encouragement that comes from it are writing, receiving constructive criticism from their peers, improving, refining, and publishing.

Unlike the self-publishing (where you paid for printing a lot of books which then filled your garage) or vanity publishing (where you paid someone to publish it and they then did nothing with it) of the 20th century, the potential distribution of self-penned books is the whole wired-world, carries no capital costs, and carries no risk. Find an online tribe of people who like what you write about, and start to like your particular writing, and you could find that your readership is greater than any book—except the Qu’ran and the Bible—in the world up to the year 1200. You may never get paid for it, but neither did most of the people writing up to the invention of printing.

The explosion in numbers of writers also explains why it has been getting ever harder to get published, in the traditional sense. At one point, a printer would have taken a chance on anything that looked plausible and manageable. Later, a publisher would read the manuscripts sent to them. Later, most publishers would only accept manuscripts sent by a recognised literary agent. Twenty years ago, agents were reading full manuscripts, unsolicited. Ten years ago, they wanted fifty pages and a synopsis. Now, many ask for thirty pages, and a growing proportion is asking for ten pages. It’s not that agents have lost interest in fiction, or that their readers have short attention spans, it’s that an ever growing number of authors, many supported by professional, paid editors, are submitting stuff.

What this means is that if your book doesn’t completely grab someone in the first ten pages, it is not going to survive the traditional process. Many of the great books of the past do not do this. Some would argue that this pressure pushes writers to ever better writing. Actually, it pushes writers to a format where the first ten pages is essentially a short story of its own.

Clearly, the puzzle plot is not going to fare well with this kind of reading regime. A book can be enormously satisfying, and yet come across as the very genre it is about to subvert.

As a new writer, writing for the new media, these rules don’t apply to you. You don’t have to satisfy an agent, or a publisher, or the reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement. If you want to write entirely in upper case, and your online tribe likes that, then you can succeed. 1

I’m not advocating tearing up all the rules. Rather, I’m suggesting that breaking out of the agent-publisher-distributer model means you no longer have to write things which satisfy the format that bookshops work to. Want to write a ten page novel? Currently, anything under 50,000 words doesn’t qualify, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write something of the scope and depth of a novel, quite different from a short story, and confine it to ten pages. Or would you prefer to write about 300,000 words a time? Research suggests that people who buy eBooks prefer longer books. Actually, many people buying print books want longer books, it’s just that first-time authors are always told to keep it between 70,000 and 80,000 words because that’s what publishers are comfortable taking a chance on. A publisher who decided to print your 800,000 word tome and distribute it to every book shop in the world in sufficient quantities to make it economically viable would, quite literary, be betting the publishing house on it. As an eBook, or a print on demand, there is no risk.

Lest anyone think that this is something that only authors ‘not good enough’ for agent-publisher-distributor publication should be interested, Paolo Coelho, he of the Alchemist (above) is a big fan of distributing his work online, for free. And then there was that author who wrote a book (as far as I’ve been able to tell without reading it or watching the film) about different kinds of monochrome. That did very  well too.

If all that is the case, may I make a plea for plot, and especially for the resurgence of the puzzle-plot. If you’re a mystery writer, naturally you know all about puzzle-plots. However, for romance, fantasy, general fiction, Westerns, or any genre you care to consider, adding intellectual satisfaction to your story can (I believe) genuinely make it better.

As we approach NaNoWriMo 2015, unshackle your pen.

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  1. Before anyone shouts that ‘THAT’S SHOUTING’, let us remind ourselves that all writing was upper case until about the 3rd century CE.

The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat (and why we misunderstand democracy at our peril)

The US Senate recently held three crucial votes on climate change. And, in other news, Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story in 1913 entitled ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat‘.

It was my father who introduced me to The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, which he described as one of the funniest stories he had ever read. Senses of humour vary, of course, but I have to say I rather agree with him: it is an iconic romp, beginning with the mundane matter of an unjust speeding ticket, and ending with worldwide ridicule for the offending village. Like much of Kipling, there are powerful undercurrents of revenge and matters taken too far.

The plot goes something like this: an English village is merrily making money be entrapping motorists, and hauling them before the local magistrate, who is part of the plot. In revenge, a journalist, an MP and an impresario manage to hold a special meeting of the Geoplanarians there. With the benefit of copious amounts of alcohol, they manage to persuade the villagers to vote that the Earth is flat. They then proceed to publicise this through the mass media, which, in 1913, is still relatively new.

Kipling makes a number of side-swipes at popular gullibility, the power of the press, the power of an oppressive judiciary, and the power of pomposity. However, the underlying point is all too obvious for being understated: no democracy has the power to determine what is, and is not, fact.

A lot of people have been sharing on Facebook their concerns that the US Senate voted by a narrow margin that climate change was not caused by human activity. What is less frequently shared is that the Senate voted overwhelmingly that climate change was genuine, and not a hoax. However, the Senate was just as misguided in doing this as in narrowly determining that climate change was not man-made.

It would be easy to characterise this as ‘Americans versus Science’, which is an attractive cultural stereotype for the British. In the words of Zack, the underperforming ex-boyfriend in Big Bang Theory, “That’s the great thing about science — there are no right or wrong answers”. Actually, Zack is closer to the truth than he knows. As Karl Popper would point out, science is a process of discovery, not a body of proven fact.


Democracy itself is widely misunderstood. It is Aristotle, of course, who laid down our first notions of democratic theory. He was not necessarily a fan (he also claimed that slavery was an essential part of society, a section of his Politics which is frequently glossed over). To Aristotle, the three forms of government were monarchy — government by one — aristocracy — government by the noble — and polity — government by the citizens. Each of these, where the government was for the benefit of all, had a debased form, where the rulers governed for their own benefit. These debased forms were tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy: government by what we would now call the ‘lowest common denominator’.

We should not, in any case, confuse Greek compulsory adult, manhood, citizen collective decision making with modern representative democracy. The crucial difference, though, is not the extent of the suffrage, nor the notion of representation, but the duty of all citizens and all representatives to vote for the benefit of all. This principle of non-selfishness is what qualifies (at their best) modern democracies for Aristotle’s term ‘polity’, rather than little more than mob rule.

It is crucial that we recognise the duty ‘the benefit of all’ rather than ‘the benefit of the majority’ or ‘the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people’. It may not always be possible to achieve the benefit of all, but the moment we relax the duty, we open the door for many of the tyrannies the 20th century explored in such detail. I do not wish, at this point, to bow to Godwin’s law (all internet discussions spiral to an appeal to the tyranny of either Hitler or Stalin), or its corollary, the Jacobin terror. However, if we consider the treatment of collaborationist intellectuals in France during De Gaulle’s interim government (excellently discussed by Baert), where people were sentenced to death after a trial lasting less than a day, for purely intellectual crimes, we have to recognise what happens when a democracy relaxes its duty for the benefit of even one or two of its citizens. 1.

Probably everyone reading this article already agrees with this. Please do forgive me for the excursus.

What we perhaps recognise rather more seldom is that the Aristotelian principle of ‘benefit of all’ also helps to set limits around exactly what a democracy can vote on. I have lost count of the number of panels, boards, committees and assemblies I have observed, or sat on over the last thirty years which have attempted to deliberate on things over which they have no authority, or no control. The Oth rule in any constitution—sometimes appended as the final rule—is that no decisions of the executive, or the council, or the board, or whatever it is, can override the law. When this is appended, it is usually in the form of ‘if any decision is subsequently found to be illegal, this does not affect the other parts of a decision’. In my experience, the problem is not decisions subsequently found to be illegal, but decisions which the body knows it doesn’t have the authority to make without having recourse to the courts.

In most cases, a good chair reins the discussion in. I have very seldom had to experience a minuted decision which was outside the scope of the particular body.

However, the ‘-1st’ rule, which should go even before the Oth rule, should be that ‘this body exists to determine the beneficial actions it will take, and for no other purpose’. This does not mean that we should in any way stifle open debate, since open debate is the means by which a body reaches its conclusions, but the only conclusions a corporate body can legitimately take are about its actions in the future. It cannot overturn its actions in the past. It certainly cannot issue pronouncements about what is true, and what is not.

Actually, the action of democracy is even more divorced from our concept of truth even than that. By its nature, democracy must be both transparent, and inscrutable. It must be transparent in that there must be open access to what decisions were made, who was eligible to make them, and whether they voted or not. In British elections, whether or not someone voted is a recorded fact which is made publicly available afterwards. Not everyone is aware of this. In the UK’s parliamentary democracy, which way the representatives vote is also recorded, and all the speeches made available through Hansard. At the same time, democracy must be inscrutable, and here it differs entirely from judicial process.

In a court of law, the jury is called upon by the judge to make the best judgement available based on the evidence and the arguments presented. A higher court may overturn the decision if it finds that the evidence was unsound, or that the jury or judge acted perversely in their decision.

In a democracy, each person makes up their own mind on how to vote. Even in an open ballot, such as when MPs vote, the representative is not required to state why they voted in that way. They may vote based on the evidence, or their conscience, or their party whip, or by drawing Scrabble letters out of a bag, or on the basis of any other reason or non-reason they like. They may be challenged to explain why they voted that way later, and they may decide that it is electorally or personally in their interests to explain, but they are not required to do so. The only exception to this is that they must declare an interest if they stand to gain by voting in a particular direction.

For this reason, no one can ever authoritatively say “the House voted in this way because…”.

This brings us back to where we began. A democratic body, no matter how august, has no authority to determine matters of fact, be they scientific, historical or artistic (it was this notion of artistic fact which was so much at issue in the post-Vichy trials). Not only does the body lack the authority, but its members cannot be required to ‘vote with the facts’. The members will vote any way they want to vote. They should vote for the benefit of all, but future benefit is not amenable to simple factual inquiry. Analysing the way they voted tells us nothing about what is true, only about what effect they believed they would have by casting their vote.

I regret very much that the US Senate has narrowly determined that climate change is not caused by human action. I am much more worried that the US Senate thinks it can be voting about ‘what is true’ at all, even when they do get the answer right.

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  1. We should also recognise that too many checks and balances are removed when the press, government and judiciary are all working to essentially the same agenda

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