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Author Topic: Value of "How-to's"
Member # 9027

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In THE ATLANTIC'S Fiction2010 issue is a piece called "How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals," by novelist and writing program professor Richard Bausch.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/08/how-to-write-in-700-easy-lessons /8043/

All of the writing programs, and most of the writers' conferences[...]read manuscripts in advance before accepting students. A person has to demonstrate talent to be accepted into a program of study. And while at times one wonders how a student got by this or that screening, in all instances the emphasis is on reading, and the workshops are not about writing as something like steam-fitting or the construction of an engine, but about the matters of craft that can be discussed as they come up, story by story.

Bausch is saying something interesting and of value in this piece but his analysis is just too Either-Or. Exclusive or crazily slavish reliance on manuals merits being disparaged and made fun of, but my question is, WHO or WHAT ultimately should determine potential writers' aptitudes, huh? Which perceptions should be valued as appropriate feedback and what barometer relied on to grant the status of a master of accomplished skills? or the ability to teach the same?

To my way of thinking, if there are multiple ways of skinning the cat of creative writing, then, even if some variant of the "master/apprentice" relationship involving one-on-one/case-by-case help is optimum (or, at least, having peers help each other along this road, to mix a metaphor), so also, generalized manuals and guidelines could provide access to accumulated wisdom, as well.

[This message has been edited by WraithOfBlake (edited June 12, 2010).]

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I found it very interesting but only sort of agreed with it. I have lots of how-to books. I use them to help improve what I have written and they are enormously helpful. Of course, I didn't use them to start with. I have always loved to read, but thanks to the books on craft, I now know what it is about my favorites that makes them so special.

Thanks for the link.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I recall understanding C. S. Lewis to have said in one of his nonfiction books that every human can tell when things are not fair, and because of that, it makes sense to infer that every human can judge, to some extent, between right and wrong (in that they are able to distinguish as far as fair and unfair).

I suspect that in a similar way, everyone who can read can distinguish between what works in writing and what doesn't. The difficulty comes with more sophisticated distinctions and more involved techniques.

We all tell stories, even before we are old enough to go to school and learn to read. OSC has talked about how stories are so integral to being human that the fact that we tell them could be argued to be one of the things that makes us human.

And we certainly learn, as we grow and progress, at least a little about how to do a better job of telling stories, if not how to tell better stories. Experience, if nothing else, can teach such things, so they can be taught.

As far as who can judge whether a story is worthy of publication or of participation in a workshop or of review by a book reviewer or of discussion in a Phd dissertation, I would submit that whoever has put out a call for submissions or an offer of consideration of stories can judge what is wanted. Those stories that don't fit the desired qualifications, don't fit. That doesn't mean they aren't worthy stories. It just means they don't fit. (This goes for magazines as well as workshops.)

At a conference I attended not too long ago, a panel of fiction editors indicated as a group that the stories they are interested in acquiring for their publications or publishers are stories in which the author has exhibited skill in the areas that can't be taught, even if the author is lacking in the areas that can be taught. Editors can work with people who can be taught, and each editor knows what kinds of things that editor feels able to teach.

Dry, boring prose, even if grammatically correct, can actually be a bigger barrier to publication than sloppy storytelling. Fixing the one might require an editor to totally rewrite someone else's work, where fixing the other can just be a matter of discussing and suggesting and then letting the author do the fixing.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a workshop leader, in reading submissions from aspirants to his or her workshop, selects participants based on the kinds of problems their manuscripts have. As in "no, we don't need another description-problem story--one is enough" and "this plot-problem story has a more interesting plot-problem than the one we picked, so let's go with it instead, though we might be able to use both of them" and "doesn't anyone have a problem with the first 13 lines?--how are we going to discuss hooks without a bad beginning?"

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How-to books helped me, so I recommend them in case the person is like minded.
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I liked it and agreed with what I read.
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Member # 1467

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That guy clearly doesn't understand learning or teaching complex cognitive skills and has, admittidly, never read a how-to book on writing and so has no idea that nothing he rails on really applies. He's from the school of thought that writing, and other cognitive skills, can't be taught. Except by mysterious osmosis (never analyze a book, he says).

He's also from the school of sniff-sniff, the world is divided into those escapist genre books and real literature. Which shows he hasn't read much in any of the genres. Then he makes the glaring mistake of ascribing causation of a lame passage to the reading of a how-to book. How does he know the how-to book caused that?

No, this guy, while relating an interesting story about painful shoes, shows he's ignorant of vast amounts of research when it comes to teaching and learning complex cognitive skills like writing.

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