This is topic Makin’ a list; checkin’ it twice . . . in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Recently, KDW posted a truncated list of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing tips. Great, but are such lists and tips useful, or even helpful? Do new and veteran writers alike paper the walls of their writing space with lists and mnemonics that they constantly refer to? Not if they have any common sense, they don’t.

It is my contention that such lists are not only useless to a writer, but also dangerous. The worst piece of advice I’ve ever heard was from some nong who said that you should introduce all five senses into every scene, taste, sight, sound, smell, and touch. Why, for gawd’s sake? If the scene doesn’t require it, get rid of it. Even general advice, such as that contained within mnemonic systems like Orson Scott Card’s Mileu, Idea, Character, Event and James Scott Bell’s Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout can be misleading, especially for a new writer.

To my mind, such lists and mnemonics are the sign of a writer’s search for the quick and easy fix. They want a nice, clean list of things to do to write the perfect story without having to expend the time, energy, and effort required. They would rather follow steps one, two, and three instead of reading, and then interpreting, Aristotle’s Poetics or Freytag’s Technique of the Drama to name just two texts I consider essential reading for any writer. A nice, simple list is so much easier than trying to understand what readers really want; then add genre readers into the mix for an added complication.

Far better to take a year or two off and learn the building blocks of story, plot and character instead of a group of lists. Find out for yourself what people want from story and why all successful stories throughout time have a beginning, middle, and an end. Find out for yourself what makes characters likeable and loveable; find out why readers want to be transported to another world and how to do it. Even if that world is some type of dystopian, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Discover for yourself why all stories seem to have flat-spots and slow bits, and how you can minimise them to write a real page-turner.

Go; find your own answers and the methods that work for you instead of trying to find the quick fix.

Phil. [Smile]

PS. Aristotle’s Poetics and Freytag’s Technique of the Drama are free to download on the www.
Posted by Denevius (Member # 9682) on :
I think it depends on the goal an individual has for his/her writing. If you want to win some major fiction award, it's probably not the best idea to stick to someone else's formula to success. But if you just want to write a tight little narrative to self-publish in the hopes of making a little bit of cash, yeah, I think the lists can be helpful in doing that, in the same way that instructions are useful in making a chair, or a desk or something.

I've had to teach a surprising number of arts and crafts classes in Korea, and finding lists, or instructions, of how to do things, from making a dream catcher, to making a wide range of paper airplanes, was immensely useful.

I think the same goes for writing. I really don't think most people are trying to create a unique literary style. They just want to tell the story in their head in the most efficient, effective way possible, and so having bullet points to remember as they do this is probably really helpful to them.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with that, and if I had to teach a creative writing class, I'd burrow a list from some well-known author for students to keep in mind as they write.

Don't forget that for most people, writing is just a hobby. It's a creative outlet. They may daydream about being the next big author, but realistically, I think they know that's not going to happen anymore than they'll become the next big golf star if they enjoy playing on the weekends. But having tips just to improve your game is a worthwhile thing.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
To list or not to list fosters an either/or fallacy mind-set. Lists are tools like minds are tools for writing, neither extreme serves every purpose, rather a spectrum axis of possibilities lays between extremes. For me, lists and mnenonic devices serve to shorthand complex concepts so the concepts are sharable, discussable, meditatable, and may develop into second nature and uses as revision criteria.

Also, and this is most important, profound, and subtle to me: lists and mnemonics provide trail markers for study. Name a writing principle, say, causality. Meaningless on its face. Yet once defined, self-defined or otherwise, so that a writing student understands and appreciates causality's first principles, further study, examination of published works for its uses and conventions and deviations, and development of self-imposed causation "rules," for example, the only sort of rules or lists a writer ought best practice follow, may proceed.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
extrinsic, I guess that's my point, in a round about sort of way. Making your own sets of lists and mnemonics is fine; you've come to a point where your understanding simply needs refreshing from time to time. It's using other people's lists that I define as lazy writing.

Denevius, you may be right. Lists and step-by-step guides have their uses in mechanical applications, but I don't think they work in conceptual creation. And, yes, for some, writing is simply a hobby and they're happy either to not be published at all, or to self-publish.

Unfortunately, I fall into neither category and, as with everything else I do, I try and be the absolute best I can be.

Posted by MAP (Member # 8631) on :
Everyone is different. What works for one person doesn't work for another. I'm sure some writers find the lists useful, and others don't. Just figure out what works best for you and do it.
Posted by Denevius (Member # 9682) on :
Denevius, you may be right. Lists and step-by-step guides have their uses in mechanical applications, but I don't think they work in conceptual creation.
Most lists, I think, are dealing exclusively with craft, or the creation of the prose. Like, I hate Vonnegut's writing, but the list Extrinsic posted isn't bad.


1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. [appeal]

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. [empathy-tension]

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. [complication]

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. [event, setting, character development]

5. Start as close to the end as possible. [fragment starts]

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of. [antagonism, causation, tension]

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. [focus]

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. [linger]

In my mind, this is all dealing with craft issues. Sentence construction, plot construction, character construction. The nuts and bolts of building a solid narrative.

Conceptual construction, if I'm taking your meaning right, is more abstract, and I don't think there is a credible list for that. I've said this before, MFA programs do really good at turning mediocre writers' material into solid writing material. I think that's something you *can* actually learn, writing a solid prose piece. I mean, why not? I've been taking kendo for five years, and it's through a different type of lists, or techniques from higher level kendo players, that my mastery of the art has increased.

But it's one thing to place 2nd, or even win a couple of local competitions. It's another to become a master, becoming one of the top kendo players in your country or in the world. This takes a vision of the martial arts, as well mechanical study of technique, to achieve.

So it is with writing. It's one thing to follow suggestions from established authors in narrative construction. You can self-publish, and hey, you may even traditionally publish here or there, if that's your goal. But actually conceiving a unique vision that's really going to make your work transcend pre-known boundaries. That can't be taught, there are no lists for that.

This is a critique that I level at writers who've reached a certain narrative construction proficiency. Yes, you've gotten all the rules down pat, and when I read your fiction, I know I'm reading very good writing.

However, I also know I'm reading very good writing that I'm going to forget tomorrow. Knowing all the rules and knowing how to apply them in narrative craft is great, but without a vision, the writing won't be memorable. It won't be the type of thing people will talk about after they've read it.

I can admit, simply because it's a fact, that Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE transcends boundaries and has a life of its own in the imagination of one generation after the other. However, the writing is crappy. It's bad. It *is* (italics mine) bad, bad writing. If you look at all of the known rules that makes good writing, and you look at Vonnegut's writing, to me there's no reconciling the two.

But you know, it's often said that a lot of classic works would be torn apart in workshops, and that's because workshops are teaching the mechanical nuts and bolts of writing, whereas classic works become classic because of the vision they carried. Yeah, they *may* also be quite well written, they may not. But the strength of the writing isn't what, in my opinion, made it a literary classic.
Posted by TaleSpinner (Member # 5638) on :
I think that as MAP says, everyone is different and we all learn in different ways.

When I started learning to write I read several books on writing by authors I respect and enjoy. I naturally shy away from mnemonics because I think they oversimplify things that are intrinsically difficult, and while I found OSC's "Character and view point" thoroughly helpful (I learned to get inside a character and tell the story from his or her POV), MICE went straight past me, and I haven't to this day found it or any other mnemonic system helpful. I did retain something I got from a documentary on film-making that featured Ken Russel, who was very keen that character motivation must be clear to the audience, a topic I think OSC covered too in "Character and Viewpoint." From that early reading I retained little snippets, not sets of rules: "Set off a time bomb" said Ben Bova, and as a result of editing Analog for some time he said that the best stories always drew extreme love/hate reactions (my words not his); and from Ray Bradbury I learned to get the first draft of a short story down in one sitting to capture the passion, and to take care to preserve that energy through revisions.

In this early education I went back to favourite books and pulled them apart and when I saw an author breaking rules I had read about, I saw that, at times of a good author's choosing, it made sense to break a rule. Being a firm believer in the old adage "rules is for breaking, baby," this came as no surprise.

If writing SF&F is about writing something different and new, it's bound to break a few rules. Breaking rules can be fun, with the shock of some - those who believe that breaking rules is somehow bad - all part of the entertainment. I think that, for artists, rules and conventions can become walls, limiting vision, and thus vital to break down. Examples of such are the Dadaists, Monty Python's "And now for something completely different,"and China Meiville's "Perdido Steet Station." which gains much of its energy and colour from purple prose, and in the world of jazz (which many like me regard as art), Miles Davis. Having seen the damage to creativity and self expression that courses in Jazz do to musicians, and having taught adults in courses in auditing quality management systems for global companies in industry, I've become convinced that rules benefit only teachers and incompetents, for they can be taught and tested. (there's nothing worse than jamming with a"qualified" jazz musician who can't improvise or cover a mistake; and I often encountered incompetent auditors who had passed the tests for only the rules were tested and they were simple). In jazz (my other career) the only way I know to develop the creativity and skill that's necessary in improvisation is by what jazz people call "paying your dues" - playing in public and learning from feedback from peers and audiences, much as we do at Hatrack with writing, reviewing and critiquing stories.

For me the test of "good" writing has nothing to do with rules. "good" means that readers and author connected, maybe measured in letters of appreciation, sales, getting published, book sales - whatever the author likes.

As a counter-example I was taught at my (British) school that Shakespeare is a "good" writer; quite how they determined "good" was a mystery. He's not good, IMHO. I have never met anyone who speaks in blank verse (and why does his "verse" never rhyme - no, no don't tell me I really don't care) and my poor command of British history makes his stuff largely inaccessible to me; no big deal, I'm not interested in the soap opera lives of killer royals. But when I say Shakespeare's a bad writer, it's no more than an opinion, one that defines my taste as "bad" in some minds, no doubt, no matter.

[ January 17, 2015, 09:17 AM: Message edited by: TaleSpinner ]
Posted by Brendan (Member # 6044) on :
There is an old adage in jazz - if you make a mistake, play it twice. [Smile]

What is good in literature, as in a lot of other things, is a sociological construct. So what is good in one era, is different to what is good in another. We develop learned expectations of stories, a learning that can be below our conscious level until someone points out some generalisations. For example, I love Jules Verne, but by modern tastes, he over-explains, because I have read a lot more modern works than 19th century works.

Rules, in writing, are usually distilled wisdom of a great amount of writing by professionals, about either the writing process or measurement outcomes. Rules that get a lot of publicity are usually ones that have helped various professional writers over time. But by definition, they are about averages, generalisations, not all encompassing standards. They are useful for many writers to accelerate their learning curve. But knowing how and when to break them is part of the art.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Huh! I posted that list, and plan to continue to post such lists, because to me they serve as reminders. When I look at a list, it is to see if there is anything I've forgotten to think about.

And writing tip lists can serve to remind writers of aspects of their writing that they may have not thought to explore.

No one is required to read or follow any list, but as with so much else her on the Hatrack River Writers Workshop forum, it is to be hoped that something may be of use to someone at some point.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Here's a list from an adhesive note beside the keyboard:

3 3/4
2 23/32
$5 - 10?, $25? $50!

Indeciperable by anyone not me; not even I can translate some items on the list. My handwritng, once cold, is unreadeable. The act of listing is a memory schema that coordinates eye, hand, and mind through an action.

Lists of other writers' rules are their similar condensation. For me, they are sieves from their subconscious memory schemas; some are interpretable, some are not.

This one writer refuses giving advice to others, refuses others' guidances. The writer suffers from artistic jealousy, zealously protects the precious memory cues and checkpoints, so the writer's "secrets" to success are kept private, so the competition cannot unravel the hard-won secrets, so the lists list writing principles the writer learned from hard work in code. Plot is mamma. Event is root. Personification is boulder. Etc.

This other writer knows what the writer's list items mean, wants to share, cannot because the writer uses self-invented terms and principles. The lists are as obtuse as the coded list writer's. "Booster interest." "Feed the armadillo." Knot and unknot pipelines." Etc.

This other writer uses explicit, widely used terminology for lists. "Show, don't tell." "Conflict in every meme." "No wakeup, white room, dialogue, disembodied voices, . . ." Etc.

This other writer lists conventions of genre subsets. "Poetic justice." "Three acts." "Conflict transformation." "More, stronger, clearer drama." Etc.

This other writer lists any and every thought on a collection of paper scraps and stores them willy-nilly in a bathtub. "Make a bubble map." "Try more description for that sequela scene." Find a metaphor for osage." Etc.

My "lists" are memory schemas, written, typed and saved digital files, photo collections, travel magazines and books, reference books, poetics texts, dictionaries, dictionaries, dictionaries. Fiction works, creative nonfiction works, rhetorical analysis works, droll and tedious fact or spoken-word transcripts, all writing works, all of anything that is life I've received.

These lists are not rules; they are attempts at directly or indirectly sharing in whichever ways social beings are able. Sharing. Social beings share. No individual is an island.

[ January 17, 2015, 01:15 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
Originally posted by extrinsic:My handwritng, once cold, is unreadeable.
Ha, I just experienced that... found some midnight-scribbles-no-computer-handy that have since been turned into final drafts. I have no idea what some of the handwrit word were supposed to be, but I must have still remembered when I typed up the scene the next morning.

As to rules, the only one I find useful is Don't Be Boring. And even that is utterly subjective.

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