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The Workshop - Tips, Tricks, and Theory

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Posts

  • ImperfectImperfect Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    You know, that Mirror Moment always drove me batty. I felt it was a sign of laziness when a character had to resort with checking themselves out in a mirror in order to get their physical description across.

    It's just as bad as when characters tell each other things they already know to bring readers up to speed.

    "Tell me again why we're here?"

    "As you know, John, we're here to steal the MacGuffin Diamond."

    Imperfect on
  • EdcrabEdcrab Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    Yeah, it's as if people think they're writing a book that will obviously become a blockbuster movie in the fullness of time. It's far better for the narrative voice to just outright tell the reader what's happening/how it looks rather than resorting to in-character conversation or thought processes.

    Edcrab on
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  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited March 2007
    Interior monologues....ugh.

    It's called subtext people. Let that do the talking for you. No one likes being hammered in the head with meaning.

    Munacra on
  • ZsetrekZsetrek Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    Keep the scene going

    I'm always banging on about this, but I found a great example recently.

    Everyone knows (or should know) that I'm a whore for TV writing, so this comes from the phenomenal NBC drama Friday Night Lights.

    To briefly set up the scene - Tami, mother of bookish, nerdy (and adorable) 15yo Julie, has recently banned her daughter from hanging around with the school "slut" Tyra. Against her mother's wishes, Julie goes to a party at Tyra's place. At the party, she inadvertently lets slip that her mother is against their friendship, and Tyra is resentful. At that point, Tyra's (drugged up) mother staggers into the party, and promptly sits on a glass coffee table, shredding her ass.* The kids freak out, and need competent adult assistance, so Julie rings up her mother.

    After helping Tyra's mother at the hospital, Tami begins to help Tyra clean up the post-party debris. My description of the scene is cribbed from Television Without Pity:
    So Angela is at home in her bed. Tami brings her some water, for which the worn-out old lady has to thank her effusively. Tami walks out into the living room and looks around at the filth and drunken debris. She takes her coat off and starts to pick up shards of glass. Meanwhile, Ole Sis is passed out jowls-down on the couch. Tyra comes out, thanks Tami, and tells her she's got it from here. Tami says that Tyra needs someone to help her clean up and Tyra snaps, "Well, it's not gonna be you." But she doesn't realize who she is dealing with, and Tami snaps back bigger and better, "Well, yeah, actually I think right now it is gonna be me."

    Tyra stands up and tells Tami to stop pretending she cares about the Collettes. Tami protests, but Tyra goes on, telling Tami that she found out that Tami won't let Julie hang out with her any more. Tami's face registers real regret that Tyra knows this. Tyra continues, telling Tami to stop acting superior in her house, that she isn't a friend of the family. Tyra, in tears, shouts at Tami, "Go home!"

    The music swells, Tyra storms out of the room, and Tami looks regretfully past the camera. A conventional writer would end the scene here (and I was totally expecting them to, too): They've set up a conflict that could be milked over a few episodes - the relationship between the two characters has significantly changed. But the writers of Friday Night Lights are anything but conventional:
    Tami is quiet for a second and then, questioningly, "Tyra?" as she steps over some debris, following the girl into the kitchen. God, Connie Britton is a careful actress. She levels with the kid: "It's just that...Julie's my girl." She explains that she might be blaming Tyra for how Julie's been acting even when it might just be that Julie's growing up. She gives Tyra a glimpse into the heart of a functional mother, saying that she thought she'd be able to handle all this and know what to do, but she doesn't, and she feels like a big freight train is coming in her direction and she's just trying to stop it. Tami apologizes to Tyra, who just says that she'll get the broom. Connie Britton goes off to a corner to contemplate the next step in her program of awesome world domination.

    The scene was sustained for just a few minutes longer, but those few minutes have effectively changed the entire scene's topography. Now, we don't have the usual, easy approach to drama - wrapped as it is, in convention and conceit. We have two real, relatable characters attempting to understand one another. We have people dealing with emotion and conflict head-on, rather than through the vehicle of writer-conceived artificial situations. A scene that could have been easy and lame has become something touching and unexpected.

    The main motivation behind extending scenes in this manner, is a fundamental acceptance of the fact that real life is never easy - there are no clean scene-breaks, and people don't eloquently sum up their feelings in easy one-liners. It also brilliantly highlights character traits for us - Tami isn't the type of woman to give up a fight, and Tyra is predisposed to dramatic outbursts but also caught off-guard by emotional honesty.

    It's a lesson to take to heart - sometimes conventional storytelling wisdom can be effectively abandoned. Put your characters in new and untried scenarios, and see how they react. If you discover that they're boring, maybe it's time to spice up the character by changing them on a fundamental emotional level. It's also a brilliant example of character-driven drama. Rather than being puppets that bounce between contrived scenarios, the characters are able to "break" the story's mould, and forge their own path - it plays against expectations, and draws attention to the fictional people you've created. It also makes you look very smart and impressive.

    Give it a go.



    *Incidentally, that is also awesome - it's out of left-field, and seems real because of that - and it has that heady dramatic potential of embarrassment, shock and fear.

    Zsetrek on
  • kitchkitch Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    I'm going to lay out some things from a course I took. This will also help to refresh my mind on some of this. Most of this is sort of basic by-the-rules stuff, but it hasn't been said, so yeah. This is mostly coming from a screenwriting perspective, but it applies pretty well to writing stories in general.


    Let's start with three act structure. Every story has a beginning (first act), a middle (second act), and an end (third act).

    1. The beginning of your story must introduce a problem.
    A lot of people will say the first thing to do when creating a story is to establish a setting or to introduce characters, but a story doesn't work without a problem. You must create a problem that will eventually be resolved in the ending. But let's go ahead and talk about characters since you're probably going to introduce them at some point.

    Characters have wants.
    Your characters' wants will be reflected through their actions and dialogue. Don't worry about writing witty discourse about how the Green Lantern is able to beat any superhero because Kyle Rayner's ring lost the charge limit, enabling him to make anything he could ever possibly want without having to re-charge his ring. Worry about your characters' wants. Your characters' wants can and probably will serve as obstacles to the main problem. You can also use them as a subplot device or in a way to create tension between two characters. There's a lot you can do, but keep in mind that your characters are trying to get what they want, and what they say and do will reflect that.

    The next time you read a story or watch a movie, write down all the major characters and what their wants are. Then find out how they go about getting what they want and how obstacles keep them from getting what they want. Find out how their wants relate to the main problem.

    The last note about your first act, the beginning of your story, is that by the end of it, your main character must enter a 'new world.' You can be as up-front or as subtle as you want to be about this. For instance, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (movie), Earth blows up at the end of the first act and Arthur and Marvin are beamed up into a spaceship, where they have now entered a 'new world.' Maybe your main character gets diagnosed with cancer or a family member dies. It's up to you.


    2. The middle of your story consists of attempts to resolve the problem.
    first act: Bob is hungry.
    second act: Bob attempts to resolve his hunger by looking for food.
    third act: Bob resolves his hunger (problem) by finding food and eating it.

    The middle of your story is not merely "stuff" or "what happens" or "content." You have to attempt to resolve your problem. To keep it simple, we'll say that your characters are trying to resolve the problem. In my example, Bob tries to find food to eat. But let's say he didn't find any food. So he searches elsewhere. Maybe he goes to the grocery store where he notices that his wallet is empty, so has to find another way to get food. He walks outside and finds $10 on the ground. He walks back into the grocery store and buys some food. He goes back home and eats his food and is no longer hungry, thereby resolving the main problem. The middle of your story consists of attempts to resolve the problem because your characters are usually met with obstacles or failure in trying to do so, until the problem is finally resolved.

    Numerous things can happen in your second act, but do not forget about your main problem. The second act must work towards resolving your main, overarching problem that was introduced in the beginning.


    3. The end of your story is the resolution of the problem.
    Simply put, the problem is solved. Maybe the characters fail outright and everyone dies, or they succeed and you get a happy ending. Your ending must be resolved in some way.

    It should also be mentioned that aftermath is not part of your third act (End). Once your problem has been resolved, anything afterwards is aftermath (meaning that, yes, prologues come before your first act are not considered the "beginning").

    kitch on
  • chitowncowboychitowncowboy Registered User
    edited March 2007
    "Those that don't have the time to read don't have the tools or the ability to write."
    -Stephen King

    "Read and write a lot."
    -Stephen King

    That's all there is too it if you ask me. Well, not ALL, but a lot of it.

    chitowncowboy on
  • PatboyXPatboyX Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    "Those that don't have the time to read don't have the tools or the ability to write."
    -Stephen King

    "Read and write a lot."
    -Stephen King

    That's all there is too it if you ask me. Well, not ALL, but a lot of it.

    I think this is better advice and less intimidating to many fledgling writers than some of the more patronizing "Schedule time to write every day for an hour or so."
    It does have its merits and I wouldn't tell anyone not to do it...but to throw that at someone is like asking them to immediately begin lifting 300 pounds with the justification that, eventually, you will be able to lift all that.

    I had a lot more to say but I felt really pompous when I finished. I've just begun re-reading Gardner's Art of Fiction. I originally hated it for the tone. I feel less alienated by the tone this time around and while I still find the examples and exercises interesting, I am having trouble truly getting behind all of what he is saying. Which, I suppose, is better than just accepting what he says and not engaging it...I was wondering if anyone else had read this book or had thoughts on him.

    PatboyX on
    "lenny bruce is not afraid..."
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  • EdcrabEdcrab Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    PatboyX wrote: »
    I had a lot more to say but I felt really pompous when I finished. I've just begun re-reading Gardner's Art of Fiction. I originally hated it for the tone. I feel less alienated by the tone this time around and while I still find the examples and exercises interesting, I am having trouble truly getting behind all of what he is saying. Which, I suppose, is better than just accepting what he says and not engaging it...I was wondering if anyone else had read this book or had thoughts on him.

    I haven't read that particular book, but I've seen him interviewed (well, paraphrased at least). I'd agree that his tone is somewhat dismissive and holier-than-thou, but a lot of guidance books take that path...

    The problem with writing advice is that too many people take it as gospel regardless of the source or veracity- and if we all did, every book would be broadly the same. So it's a damn good sign that you've listened to the message but questioned it, if you ask me ;)

    But I can't deny that King's glib quips are true to form- reading is never a bad thing for a budding writer. Of course, it shouldn't get in the way of finding time to actually write, but I reckon we can all juggle that requirement (although I sometimes feel like I live on the internet).

    I think short statements like that are far easier to agree with than epics detailing every single step of the creation of a novel. There's more chance that you'd find an entry in a huge guide that you firmly disagree with, but basic advice like "read your own work and other people's work a lot" is much easier to take on board.

    You should post whatever you think works PatboyX- it's the reader's own problem if they choose to construe you as "pompous". I never read writing advice and think the author's saying "you must write like this or you suck/don't stand a chance".

    Uh, unless they actually say that, in which case they can go verb themselves with an incredibly painful metaphor.

    Edcrab on
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  • ImperfectImperfect Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    Kitch, the best way I've ever heard that put is:

    Act 1) Get your characters up a tree.
    Act 2) Shake the tree.
    Act 3) Get 'em down.

    But yeah, it's like essay writing. Stick with the basic structures until you know them so well you don't have to stick to them anymore. THEN you can branch out.

    Imperfect on
  • PatboyXPatboyX Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    One of the things I wanted to post was something that worked wonderfully for me...by which I mean that it has helped me to recognize the conventions used in books, movies, television shows and pretty much anything with a story.
    I really enjoy reading and watching terrible examples of any art form. I love terrible fiction. To me, it makes transparent those elements that our most adored artists can mask in good story-telling, character or just plain style. I don't think anything has helped me understand the functions of story as much as watching someone fail spectacularly at it. In part, I feel like an asshole for this. However, I also feel like the works I put under this umbrella are seldom up for debate. I'm not talking about Bret Easton Ellis last novel, I'm talking about the poetry of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings.

    PatboyX on
    "lenny bruce is not afraid..."
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  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited March 2007
    I just throw the book away in disgust. I don't know what happened to to that copy of Eragon I threw away in the trash.

    Munacra on
  • bsjezzbsjezz Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    Yeah I have enough making myself read great stuff, much less something which makes the same mistakes throughout. I find it hard to believe that you'd learn more from some dodgy poetry or bad Sci-Fi than you would from James Joyce or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

    You have a point, sure - but bad writing is best demonstrated through selected examples, as opposed to you know. Getting it in the wild.

    bsjezz on
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  • PatboyXPatboyX Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    bsjezz wrote: »
    Yeah I have enough making myself read great stuff, much less something which makes the same mistakes throughout. I find it hard to believe that you'd learn more from some dodgy poetry or bad Sci-Fi than you would from James Joyce or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

    You have a point, sure - but bad writing is best demonstrated through selected examples, as opposed to you know. Getting it in the wild.

    I mean, the purpose isn't to only read crap. But once you finish Ulysses, I think it's time for a break. Google "fan fiction" and relax a little. Part of the appeal is that people like Joyce and Pynchon will have toiled over their work to make the pieces fit, to make this improbable universe feel natural. Which can be a wonderful teacher. But for me, it helps to then look at pieces where it absolutely fails to come off. Then I can compare where things are going.

    And, since I mentioned Pynchon, I am wondering if anyone has read Slow Learner. I got excited by the premise of the book and had been a fan of the stories collected in it (especially "Entropy") but I was disappointed to see how general the introduction was. With him, I was expecting almost a parsing of entire sections but was instead giving these sweeping complaints he had.

    I've been on a reading about writing kick lately and I was wondering if anyone had a book like the one I was hoping to get out of Slow Learner. A book where someone presents their own stuff and, years later, goes through to explain what is going on and how they feel it worked or didn't.

    PatboyX on
    "lenny bruce is not afraid..."
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  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited March 2007
    I can sincerely say that reading a lot of stories here and giving feedback on them has made me a better writer. My tip is to just find other people who like to write and read and hang out with them.

    Read though. I am amazed by the number of writers who have never read anything. They're the ones who usually go on the kick that writing has no rules. Maybe there's no guidelines to what makes a story work, but there's a LOT of things that can make it suck.

    Munacra on
  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited March 2007
    And my hero says it better than anyone.
    How to write with style
    By Kurt Vonnegut
    Kurt Vonnegut, author of such novels as“Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Jailbird” and “Cat’s Cradle” tells you how to put your style and personality into everything you write.
    © 1982 International Paper Co. Reprinted with permission.

    Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

    These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful--? And on and on.

    Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead--or worse, they will stop reading you.

    The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

    So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

    Find a subject you care about.
    Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

    I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way--although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

    Do not ramble, though.
    I won’t ramble on about that.

    Keep it simple.
    As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.
    _______________________________________________
    "Should I act upon the urgings that I feel, or remain passive and thus cease to exist?"
    ” "To be or not to be?"
    _______________________________________________
    “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long.

    Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

    Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

    Have the guts to cut.
    It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

    Sound like yourself.
    The writing style which is most natural to you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

    In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand.

    All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.

    I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

    Say what you mean to say.
    I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but I am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable--and therefore understood.

    And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

    Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

    Pity the readers.
    They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school--twelve long years.

    So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify--whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

    That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

    For really detailed advice
    For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan, 1979). E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

    You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or how badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say

    Munacra on
  • PatboyXPatboyX Registered User regular
    edited March 2007
    There is a book "Like Shaking Hands with God" that is, essentially, a transcribed interview between Vonnegut and Lee Stringer. It is amazing. The only thing that would have made me happier would have been a conversation between Vonnegut and Irving.

    PatboyX on
    "lenny bruce is not afraid..."
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  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited April 2007
    Before you post a story here, please I beg you read "Everything that Rises Must Converge".

    She is unarguably, the finest short story writer of this century (and the last)

    You can't argue with that.

    Munacra on
  • Grid SystemGrid System Registered User
    edited April 2007
    On his website, Dan Simmons has a section called "Writing Well". It has some very valuable and brutally honest information for everyone who would like to make a serious go at writing. It's also a hefty read - the man can write lots and isn't afraid to do so. I'm going to post his first installment here to hopefully whet some people's appetites, but in the interests of saving the v-scroll, I'll spoiler most of it.
    Writing Well
    Installment One
    Can someone really be taught how to write well?

    As an elementary public-school teacher of 18 years, as well as in my former role of gifted-talented educator, national language arts consultant, sometime college lecturer, and occasional writer-in-residence for advanced programs for adults who want to become writers, I can answer that question with an emphatic yes if the question means – Can people of all ages be taught to improve their writing skills by quantum leaps?
    I know it can be done. I’ve done the teaching and watched students do the learning and produce the quality work. Working with average 11-yr.-old sixth graders, I saw these kids achieve a proficiency at least equal to – and in most cases superior to – seniors in high school who lacked such instruction. As a teacher of selected gifted youngsters on the sixth-grade level, I watched them learn how to produce prose fiction superior to the vast majority of college-level writing majors. As an instructor in writing workshops for adults, I’ve helped would-be professional writers make that final quantum jump – and it is rarely a small one – up to the minimum threshold of quality that allows work to be published.
    But the second question implicit in the first – Can most people really be taught to write well enough to become published writers? – is one that I can’t answer.

    Being a writer requires many subsets of skills – including the ability to observe closely and objectively, having a keen ear for language, understanding the structures and protocols of fiction, being a powerfully analytical reader, having the ability to bring fictional structure out of the near-infinite chaos that is reality, being intelligent and well-read, having the courage to be honest about things most of us would prefer to avoid discussing, and, for most writers, receiving a broad formal education even before you begin educating yourself to your own style as a writer. It may be a fact that very few men and women have the full range of gifts necessary to become a writer -- or at least a writer who can produce work of such quality that it deserves to be read by thousands or millions of other people.

    This sounds elitist, even arrogant, but consider the simple fact that, according to various studies, in the United States, which has a population of almost 300 million people, (a surprisingly large percentage of whom who think they can write fiction), only about 400 to 500 adults in this entire country manage to make their living solely through the writing of fiction. About twice that number publish occasional fiction while holding down a “day job” at universities or as teachers in writing programs. (There are hundreds of screenwriters serving the voracious maw of TV and Hollywood, of course, but even there the number of those who can make a full time living at it amounts to only a few score out of 280,000,000 Americans who might want to give it a try.)

    Once, during a wonderful evening spent with Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), and the famous satirical comedy writer and radio comedian Stan Freberg, I asked Freberg if it was true that there were only 54 people in America who could write comedy. He thought about it for a long time. Then he said, “About half that number, I think.”

    Some of that shocking disparity of wannabes to can-do’s (there are many more professional major league baseball players than professional writers, for heavens sake!) is explained by the reduced requirements of the modern publishing marketplace and by the distressing fact that only about 6% of Americans read almost all of the books. (Only about 2% read fiction to any serious extent.) But the real reason for the difficulty in writing professionally is that it is hard.

    Damned hard.

    God-damned hard.

    We tend to forget that because most of us can read and we write letters, memos, e-mails, and personal memoirs and other things for our friends and family. Is it such a leap then to professional writing?

    It is.

    Not to belabor the point, but writing for publication is hard. Damned hard. The first thing a would-be professional writer has to learn is how huge – how depressingly near-infinitely colossally horrifyingly hugely huge – the gap is between good amateur writing and real professional writing. Again, not to belabor a metaphor, but it’s roughly the distance between very good Little League baseball and playing for the Yankees. It looks like the same game being played, but in a real way it’s not.

    And it doesn’t help that most of education for the last century or so has emphasized that to write, all one has to do is reach down and untap the “creative potential” within yourself. From first grade through too many post-graduate writing programs, much of the emphasis remains on untapping that theoretical creative potential. Let that writer-within-you out, is the theory, and the rest is gravy. Just find your slide and grease it.

    One of Hemingway’s most important pieces of advice on becoming a writer was – “What every writer needs is an absolutely earthquake-proof shit-detector. Every real writer has one.”

    This is a case where you need one.

    Your teachers and professors have lied to you, my friends. While latent talent and reservoirs of creativity may be absolutely essential ingredients in becoming a real writer, these things can do almost nothing by themselves. They are, by themselves, not worth the proverbial bucket of warm spit.

    We all know there are youthful prodigies in mathematics. Indeed, by the age of 30, most true mathematicians are over the hill. If they haven’t made their bones by then, they almost certainly never will.

    There are near-infant prodigies in music. (At the age of two, so the story goes, little Mozart would toddle downstairs in the middle of the night and play an unresolved chord on the harpsichord, knowing that his father would have to get out of bed and come downstairs to resolve it.)

    There are artistic prodigies such as Picasso. It’s reported that Andrew Wyeth was so proficient in drawing with charcoal when he was about seven that his instructor, his father N.C., banned him from drawing with it for at least a year so he wouldn’t fall behind in learning his skills with other media.

    There are no novelist prodigies. None. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

    It’s true that some young people have a better ear for language and innate sense of storytelling than perhaps 99% of the rest of the population, but becoming a writer demands years and decades of experience as a human being – who wants to read anything by even the most gifted callow 18-yr.-old? – and then more years and decades of apprenticeship to the Word.

    Recall Chaucer’s opening line to The Parliament of Fowls – “The lif so short, the craft so long to lerne.”

    Discipline. Reading to absorb the skills of writing. Study. Effort. Sweat. Learning. Maturing. More discipline. More study. More reading. More apprenticing. More maturing. More discipline. And then you can start.

    As part of that discipline, all writers must read widely and deeply to learn how writers write. It’s that simple. Good instruction can take years off your apprenticeship by helping you ferret out the subtleties of style in other, better writers’ work, help you see the sometimes invisible but always present forms of structure, teach you to perceive the difficulties and triumphs of careful word choice, train you to thread the labyrinths of plotting – and so on and so forth ad infinitum (and ad nauseum).

    One way to begin that apprenticeship is to listen to great writers talk about how they do their work.
    Now this suggests “rules for writing” and I can hear the multitudes shouting that there ARE NO RULES for writing. That doesn’t turn out to be the case. Just as learning to draw is a requirement before becoming a real artist or learning one’s scales is required before becoming a musician, there are many rules of writing to be absorbed and mastered. It’s only after learning such basics that the artist, the musician, or the writer can afford to “break the rules” – although in truth, experiments in style and breakthroughs in technique in prose fiction, however modern or postmodern, never really break the rules of the basics, any more than moving on to abstraction in oil painting vitiates the need to master basic drawing, perspective, and color theory.

    There are no wormhole or hyperdrive shortcuts in learning how to write well.

    So with that in mind, in these early instalments of “Writing Well” I’m going to introduce you to a few such rules from writers. Rather than make up rules myself, I’ll borrow some from writers who are far my superiors. FAR my superiors. Light years and parsecs and . . . but you get the idea.

    Ernest Hemingway once said, “American literature began with Huckleberry Finn.” This can be debated – and has been for decades – but what Hemingway meant can’t be ignored. What he was saying was that America truly found its voice in literature – one which dealt with our nation’s deepest obsessions and secrets – when Mark Twain perfected a new naturalism in dialogue and description, something almost unprecedented in world literature before that time -- a new level of realism that has defined most of American writing since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

    So we’ll begin with “Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing.”

    I need to warn you, however, that Twain more or less made these rules up on the spot, just as a handy means to bash another writer; I garnered and paraphrased most of these “rules” from his vitriolic essay on “The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper.” Twain actively hated Cooper’s popular books. He thought that Cooper’s prose was flowery, ornate, overworked, pompous, and silly. He thought that Cooper’s characters would speak like a “Negro minstrel” one minute and like an “Anglican vicar” the next. He thought that Cooper’s plots were stupid and contrived and that the action was filled with dumb miracles. (When Natty Bumpo, the Deerstalker, needs to find the trail of a wily Indian who’d tried to hide his path by walking in a stream, Natty simply dams up the stream and finds the footprints in the bottom of the streambed. “Try it!” roars Twain. “Just try doing that!!”)

    One can just imagine Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn out in the woods with Tom trying to emulate his literary hero by pulling such a trick, then kicking stones and cursing a blue streak when he finds out it won’t work. Mud is mud.

    Another time, a Cooper group lost in a thick fog near a fort and being pursued by Indians seeking their scalps hears the fort firing cannons to lead them in. A cannonball comes rolling out of the fog and their Leatherstocking hero, using his woodcraft skills, follows the path of the cannonball through the forest back to the fort and safety. “Try doing that!!!” we can hear Twain bellowing.

    Frequently, when I started the year in language arts by introducing Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing to my sixth-graders, and then read them Twain’s full essay on “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” – trying not to wet my pants laughing at the part where the idiot “Cooper Indians” fail in their attempt to jump onto the deck of a flatboat that’s spending six minutes passing under the tree limb they’re hiding on, the flatboat, according to Cooper’s own sloppy descriptions, being so wide its sides are only inches from each bank of the meandering creek -- the first result would be that some of the kids, perverse little buggers that they are, would run to the library and read some of Cooper’s books.
    At any rate, here is the heart and core of our first installment of Writing Well –

    Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing

    (Freely adapted from his essay on the Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper)

    1) A story shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

    2) The parts of a story shall be necessary parts of the story and shall help develop it.

    3) The people in the story (characters) shall be alive, except in the case of the corpses, and the reader should be able to tell the corpses from the others.

    4) The people in the story, both dead and alive, shall show a sufficient excuse for being there.

    5) The talk in a story (dialogue) shall sound like human talk, should be talk such as a human being would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, should be interesting to the reader, should help out the tale, and should stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

    6) When the author describes a character in his story, the conduct and conversation of that person shall justify the description.

    7) The author and characters shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone – or, if they must venture a miracle, the author must make it look possible and reasonable.

    8) The author should make the reader feel a deep interest in the characters of the story. The characters should be real enough that the reader will love the good ones, hate the bad ones, and care what happens to all of them.

    9) The characters shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

    In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones:

    The author shall . . . .
    10) SAY what he wants to say, not merely come near it.

    11) Use the right word, not its second cousin.

    12) Avoid a surplus of words.

    13) Eschew obfuscation.

    14) NOT leave out necessary details.

    15) Avoid laziness in writing style.

    16) Use good grammar.

    17) Employ a simple and straightforward style.
    Dan Simmons’s commentary on Mark Twain’s Rules:

    These seem self-evident, don’t they?

    Obvious. Almost too obvious. If you’re a would-be writer, you already know and do all these things, I’m sure.

    Do you? Do I? Do most professional writers, much less amateurs?

    It’s my guess that if an amateur writer’s prose merely satisfied these “obvious” Mark Twain Rules, he or she would be 85% of the way to publication.

    This sounds harsh, but when professional writers spend workshop time with amateur would-be writers – even (or especially) with adults who wish to become writers and often think they are that close to publication – it’s too often similar to an adult coming across a field where six-year-olds are playing “baseball” without knowing the rules: kids run the bases in random order, don’t know how many strikes and balls there are before the batter should go sit down or trot to first, aren’t sure of where the batter stands or how to hold a bat, have no idea of innings, don’t know which hand to throw with or which hand to put the glove on, can’t throw, can’t hit, don’t know where they should be playing their positions, don’t have a clue as to when an inning would be over . . . .

    In other words, it’s chaos. It can be delightful to watch and it’s certainly creative . . . but it’s not baseball.

    (A personal note: as a huge fan of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes I find it completely true to little Calvin’s essentially anarchist character that when he and his stuffed-tiger-imaginary-living-tiger-friend Hobbes play their version of “baseball,” it involves wrestling, tackling, climbing trees, shouting certain phrases, and – probably – hiding in the woods. We’ll never know what Calvin would have become when he grew up, but we know for a certainty what he would not have turned into – a baseball player or a member of any other team sport.)

    If one has to use a team sport analogy to describe the long-haul of writing, it has to be baseball since the games in that sport aren’t just played on Friday nights or Sundays, interspersed with days and weeks in which to rest up and heal, but slog on day and night, through heat and chill, from the earliest post-snow days of spring into the short days of late autumn. Luck is really not a factor in baseball. Time, fatigue, injuries, and constant daily play reduce the impact of lucky streaks to almost nothing. Like a gambling casino that will always win in the long run, time and frequency of effort in baseball beats the luck and accident out of the game until it is the pure skill and endurance of the players that come through – or not. Football teams can have a “perfect season” but even the best teams in baseball will lose about 65 games a year. As Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles once said (speaking for professional writers everywhere), “This ain’t a football game. We do this every day.”

    Writing is definitely not a team sport – it’s been described as “that shameful thing you do alone, behind closed doors” – but, like any sport (or like art, music, mathematics, or any trade), it has a complex set of rules one has to master. As a would-be professional you can afford to ignore them only after you’ve mastered them.

    Twain’s first rule – that a story shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere – seems almost insulting in its obviousness, but the vast majority of amateur attempts at fiction go nowhere at all. In a different context, Mark Twain once said that reading a story or novel is rather like taking a train somewhere – that is, you’ve paid for your ticket and there’s a certain sense of dissatisfaction if you just sit in the unmoving train in a station for a bit while various things go on outside the windows and then you’re forced to get off the train right where you started.

    You’d be amazed at how few amateur stories leave the station.

    “The parts of a story shall be necessary parts . . .” again almost insults our intelligence as would-be writers. Until, that is, one learns to read one’s own fiction with a gimlet eye, learning the ruthlessness necessary to sacrifice your most darling sentences and chapters if they don’t move the tale along in more ways than one. My own rule here is that no scene in a novel should be in the finished book unless it moves the tale or the telling of the tale (such as delineating character) along in at least three ways; no page in a novella or novelette unless it serves the same triune function; no sentence in a short story.
    Creating realistic, important, necessary, and interesting dialogue is one of the hardest parts of learning to write well, but Twain’s admonition to the characters (and their author) to just shut up when they run out of things to say is more profound than you might guess. Knowing when to start and stop – not just in dialogue, but in the story or scene or chapter or entire novel – is one of the hardest things to learn in becoming a writer and the false-starts and non-endings are sure signs of amateurish writing.

    Even Twain’s “litte rules” could be studied for months and not be fully explored.

    “Use the right word, not its second cousin” seems simple enough . . . but if it’s so simple, why do so few published writers today, much less the legions of amateurs, succeed in doing it? Twain once said – “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

    Visual artists have oil paints, acrylics, tempera, watercolors, pastel crayons, regular crayons, conte crayons, felt tip, graphite pencils, pen and ink, airbrush, scratchboard, digital rendering, woodcutting, lithograph . . . . scores of other tools to choose from for their medium.

    Writers have words. Only words.

    From Aeschylus through Shakespeare to Dickens to Thomas Pynchon and beyond, that’s all writers have in their tool box. That’s all they ever will have.

    Words.

    The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

    Next time, we’ll ask Ernest Hemingway to step in and give us some advice on what to do with those words.

    And now, for the links:

    Writing Well - Installment One

    Writing Well - Installment Two

    Writing Well - Installment Three

    Writing Well - Installment Four

    Writing Well - Installment Five

    Writing Well - Installment Six

    Grid System on
  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited April 2007
    I like those links a lot Grid System.

    Munacra on
  • the Togfatherthe Togfather Registered User
    edited April 2007
    Wow. I could quote each bit of that post and explain just how much light each one shed on my own personal suckitude. But I won't. I doubt anyone wants to see that.

    Now the challenge - give up? Or use it to get better. hmmm...

    the Togfather on
    The night is dark and full of terrors.
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  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited April 2007
    Do the later.

    Munacra on
  • the Togfatherthe Togfather Registered User
    edited April 2007
    Ok.

    the Togfather on
    The night is dark and full of terrors.
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  • EdcrabEdcrab Registered User regular
    edited April 2007
    Munacra wrote: »
    Do the later.

    I think what Munacra means here is "do the latter, later". It's the only explanation :lol:

    Brilliant post, Grid. Simmons certainly hits home the fact that a lot of budding authors are blatantly aware of the "ground rules" but find it inceasingly hard to actually follow them...

    Edcrab on
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  • PatboyXPatboyX Registered User regular
    edited April 2007
    Munacra wrote: »
    Before you post a story here, please I beg you read "Everything that Rises Must Converge".

    She is unarguably, the finest short story writer of this century (and the last)

    You can't argue with that.

    I could argue with it.
    I won't because I love her.

    Please read Wise Blood.

    PatboyX on
    "lenny bruce is not afraid..."
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  • noir_bloodnoir_blood Registered User regular
    edited April 2007
    Munacra wrote: »
    Before you post a story here, please I beg you read A Good Man is Hard to Find

    She is unarguably, the finest short story writer of this century (and the last)

    You can't argue with that.

    I think Ernest Hemingway gives her a run for that title, but anyways, I always recommend that story, for some reason I find the Misfit one of the most fascinating characters in literature.

    noir_blood on
    Your sig is too tall. -Thanatos
    Willeth wrote: »
    ITT: We don't need to fully read others posts.

    True. In addition, we don't need to fully read one another's posts.
  • lofalofa Registered User
    edited May 2007
    Zsetrek wrote: »
    The Workshop - Tips, Tricks, and Theory
    other crits are a bit more complex and difficult to explain, or may come off as a bit harsh and callous if used in reference to a specific story.


    I guess they want to see the best .

    lofa on
  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited May 2007
    endings:

    Well, I think I figured out endings. So, make your endings as clear and complete as possible, but don't moralize and shove your interpretation of the story on your readers. Ambigous endings are a big no-no, but let your readers draw their own conclusions.

    Your story ultimately is half yours half theirs. Don't take their part away at the end and leave them with a bitter taste.

    Clear endings but let the reader do their part.

    Munacra on
  • lofalofa Registered User
    edited May 2007
    While I'm reading story or whatever, I noticed that part of the dialogue is written in italic font.

    Could someone explain that to me please .:?:

    lofa on
  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited May 2007
    it may be the character's inner thoughts. It depends on the context.

    Munacra on
  • lofalofa Registered User
    edited May 2007
    Thanks a lot Munacra.

    Now... to further display my ignorance... and perhaps complete my understanding... Is it ok to tell the reader's your character's inner thoughts, or let them get the idea by them selves.?

    lofa on
  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited May 2007
    I would say it's preferable to do the later, through use of subtext or behavior clues.

    Munacra on
  • lofalofa Registered User
    edited May 2007
    Thank you very much Munacra for the time you have taken.

    And still many question need answers :lol: ... But again it never too late to learn :D

    Once again Thanks for your insight !

    lofa on
  • OfficiousGOfficiousG Registered User regular
    edited May 2007
    If you are a person who both writes and plays video games, and you happen to be playing a game where it prompts you to choose a name for your character,

    NEVER name the character in a video game after a character in a story you are writing. Doing so will drain all the life and personality out of the character in your story.

    It's like creating a voodoo doll of your character and sticking a bunch of pins in it. Ignore this advice at your peril.

    OfficiousG on
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  • MunacraMunacra Registered User
    edited May 2007
    Let the story tell itself. Don't butt into your story by trying to explain things, or giving extra information or cute and witty insights. The story is what it is and nothing else matters but the raw stuff.

    addendum: You can get away with this deal if you use like, asterisks at the end of something and explain it later in footnotes. I don't know if it adds anything, but it's a funny idea.

    oh yeah, and writing advice is often conflicting.

    Munacra on
  • dlsnelldlsnell Registered User
    edited June 2007
    For the most part, phrases such as "he saw" or "she felt" or "they smelled" are expendable when filtering your story through a point-of-view character. If you’ve already established that Ben, say, is the POV character, then the reader will already know that Ben is the one seeing, feeling, and smelling things. So the sentence, “Ben saw the cat dive into the blender,” could just as easily be, “The cat dove into the blender.” It's implied that Ben saw it because you can only report the things Ben sees (unless you’re using an omniscient narrator separate from Ben's perceptions).

    However, sometimes you need to use a sense phrase because it sounds better to the ear and adds variety. Use your judgment. But I suggest using them sparingly.

    dlsnell on
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    “Violent and visceral…beautiful and erotic”--David Moody
  • lofalofa Registered User
    edited June 2007
    I've always find it a certain fascinating image , when the writer do the chopping with appreciate cleverness, avoiding unnecessary phrases and descriptions , taking you instantly there trouble free cause after all it's a 2 page story .

    Ex
    Chekhov (JOY)

    IT was twelve o'clock at night.

    [Mitya Kuldarov,with excited face and ruffled hair, flew into his parents' flat..... ]



    Standard..;-)

    lofa on
  • Captain HeavysteinCaptain Heavystein Registered User
    edited August 2007
    I have been writing a story, and in my head it continually expands, not unlike a marshmallow peep in a microwave. It is approaching mass proportions, and I am very far from conveying the full message. This deems that, in every sense of the term, this may be approaching novel status. I have over 33K words, to give you all a size reference, and I am between 1/3 and 1/2 expressed in this tale (closer to 2/5, perhaps). I do not contribute all of this solely to content, primarily for the following reason.

    Now, I have no problem with writing a novel, but in asking some readers their oppinions (5 between the ages of 20 and 45) I recieved one continual comment which was at times extremely positive, and at other times devastatingly negative. It consisted of the following:

    "you use big words".

    I can't help but wonder whether it is a good or bad thing to use longer words. My spoken vocabulary is uncannily similar to my writing vocabulary, and I have recieved like comments about the way I speak, verifying that it may be confusing at times. So please, tell me:

    Is it a bad thing to use lengthy words?

    Captain Heavystein on
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  • OrikaeshigitaeOrikaeshigitae Registered User, ClubPA regular
    edited August 2007
    It depends on who you ask really.

    My advice would be to write it in the same style that you have been writing it in. In revision, using a more distanced eye, you can decide whether or not to rephrase it.

    Orikaeshigitae on
  • Grid SystemGrid System Registered User
    edited August 2007
    Based on what I just read, I'd say it's probably a bad thing. For example:
    It is approaching mass proportions, and I am very far from conveying the full message.
    Surely what you really mean here is, "It is pretty long, and I still have a lot left to write." Talking about "mass proportions" is just silly and confusing. If that's the sort of thing you do a lot in the story, you're going to want to stop.

    Grid System on
  • ruzkinruzkin Registered User regular
    edited August 2007
    Use short words. Use the shortest words and phrases possible to get the idea across. Sometimes longer words have their place, but that's when one long word serves the purpose of three shorter words, and thus using the longer word is faster and clearer.

    The purpose of building a larger vocabulary is not so you know long words with which to dazzle your readers, but so you always know what words to use to create the image clearly, crisply and with the minimum of wank.

    ruzkin on
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