When I was a child, I took apart my toys and put them back together as best I was able. I got better at it, and eventually was able to put them completely back together. Mom, Dad, and siblings complained I broke the toys and often threw them out. "That's how I play with my toys." When I said that, they stopped bothering me about taking my toys apart.
I learned to do the same with writing from reading writing about writing: books, essays, articles. My reference shelf holds many how-tos and poetics texts I read and study. From learning from them, I learned how to vivisect any narrative, be it fiction, creative nonfiction, nonfiction in general, and poetry: all writing. Word by word, clause by clause, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, book by book and vice versa, from overtopping tiers like organization and focus, on down to the smallest meaning unit, perhaps prefix or suffix level.
I'm currently rereading Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction and Seymour Chatman's Story and Discourse. Knight's is blunt in a way I find refreshing. He names the self-involved shortcomings of struggling writers as narcissistic, hobby writing, self-indulgence, and describes the kind of writing that results. He counters that bluntness with a frank confession that his or any writing is to a degree narcissistic. Writing, after all, is at least self-interested in making meaning for the self. But, Knight says, the point of writing on the surface is to share meaning in at least entertaining ways. Further, Knight notes a function of writing and reading that benefits society is to expand one's consciousness. He describes methods for blunt self-examination of one's writing in four steps and then expands on those points throughout the book.
Seymour Chatman's Story and Discourse, alternatively, deals largely with voice as a craft approach: narrator types, transitions into and out of narrator voice and character voice and between; concepts like story time and narrative time, pacing so to speak; and other voices of a narrative, like real writer, implied writer, and narrator mediation, and how any given address may be to a narratee, implied reader, or real reader; also narrative distance and to a degree psychic distance. The text begins with a survey of concepts and groundwork and progresses into increasingly focused detail. Chatman doesn't discuss the most artful and immersive method, and challenging, of any character voice--first, second, or third person--that expresses the self's sensory experiences and responses in a nonvolitional manner, but he does discuss volitional and nonvolitional distinctions.
I've read these texts priorly and gleaned a few nuggets from them. Coming back to them, I've gotten more insight from being more familiar with the concept discussions. Both have given me tools for evaluating and taking apart published and struggling narratives and, most importantly, skills for writing.
I'm nearly finished close reading the short story collection New Dubliners, Oona Frawley, editor. The collection reprises James Joyce's Dubliners' voices and subjects but in contemporary manners. The scenes are vivid, though the dramatic complications and characters, settings, and conflicts are probably not to most readers' tastes. For me, since they have degrees of open narrative distance, they are easier to study than deeply immersive narratives. I read them for interpreting method, intent, meaning, for their audience appeal and accessibility, and whether I can figure them out, take them apart and find insight into writing that I can take away.
I know that the joys of reading and writing can become a misery if too much taking apart and analysis overrides the joys thereof, I've been there--several years of dark times when reading and writing were limp dishrags, stale toast, and firepit ashes. I vigorously resisted studying writing, believing I could figure it out on my own. Once I started studying, though, as Knight notes in Creating Short Fiction, perseverance wins through the darkness. I now enjoy reading and writing again. I enjoy them more so than before since now I wear all the hats at once of reader, close reader, writer, editor, publisher, and critic. It has been worth the candle (a colonial era saying meaning worth paying for a candle to burn the midnight oil).
What are you reading, please, as a study of writing?
1. “Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
2. “Just remember that Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was in him. ”
Posts: 1475 | Registered: Aug 2010
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How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
Plot by Ansen Dibell
Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Those three books, as well as this website this website by Jeffrey A. Carver, were an inspiration for me to really get serious about writing. I reference all four often.
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I have been concerned with myself for not understanding what it is that is so great about Asimov' s Foundation series. I have only read it once and was disappointed at the lack of closure. It seemed like there was no real ending at all. I was so disappointed in fact that I gave all the books away to a friend. Pretty rare for me. I have been feeling guilty for years about it. What was I missing?
Recently I found the entire series at a thrift store and I decided to give them another try. While these aren't books "on writing" I am using them in this manner. I am going to enjoy them as though it is the first time and look for reasons that this is regarded as one of the greatest SF series of all time.
Posts: 60 | Registered: Jul 2013
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I found myself influenced by writing books by L. Sprage de Camp and Barry B. Longyear...these, however, concerned writing science fiction almost exclusively...a little later, another writing book by Dean Koontz, not directly concerned with SF, wielded similar influence (though, oddly enough, I don't much like his own work.)
A college course on logic also influenced how I put things together---B follows A and leads to C, and so on---which I found useful in figuring out plotting.
On the "Foundation" series, particularly the trilogy...yeah, it was an influence on me...but, I gotta say, when I reread it in recent reprints, it didn't seem as great as I remembered. I think Asimov got better as a writer as he went on.
Remember, too, the original trilogy is composed of stories written to please John W. Campbell and published in the 1940s in Astounding (except for the very first part of the first book, which was written to fill it out.) Even if you include the rest of the series (written in the 1980s and 1990s) there are conclusions, but no real closure.
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Partly because I decided I wanted to write and partly because I have young children ... and partly because I'm interested in computers becoming intelligent, I've just recently started to examine how people learn language (and many other things).
How do most people learn grammar? They don't study the rules of grammar. They don't formulate sentences by constructing according to the rules. They hear the "right way" (which may actually be wrong) many, many times and then their brain formulates sentences the right way because it "sounds right." They "intuit" grammar. Learning the denotations and connotations of words works the same way. Learning to shoot a basketball is also a similar process.
Some people do this better than others without any training, both grammar and basketball. You might call this practice.
I think the best path for humans is a mixed approach. Learning the "rules" of a process can make you more aware, can make your practice more effective.
Also intuition works better on smaller scales, so it's good for grammar and definitions of words. It's not so good for plotting. Writers should study plotting analytically.
Similarly, intuition is the only way to make an individual basketball shot. You can't calculate the correct velocity on the fly. But the overall strategy for the last four minutes of the game ... you better analyze that.
P.S. I think the path to making computers intelligent lies in programming them to intuit/learn the same way humans do.
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After a slow start, this topic is building a little momentum. Several interesting writing texts and topics raised too. I'm familiar with and have sampled or read the texts referenced above as well. Maybe I'm obsessed like a gold miner looking for the mother lode now that I've uncovered a few gems in each text I've studied. Tel est le vie d'escritur.
I've also read fiction of the named writers. No way any one person can read the totality of literature or writing texts avaliable. In total, a community may have put a substantial dent in it and build consensus and blaze trails through the wilderness. Word of mouth.
Asimov's writing reflects its era, the Golden Age where awe and wonder provided its audiences adventurous escapes and escapades of the imagination through the escapism-oriented literarure of the canon. Limited closure is a kind of cliffhanger that continues to draw curious readers and was more common across the age's canon than later ages. Later science fiction ages focused more one character transformation than milieu and event, per se, and plot is a challenge for every writer. Is there an age now? I believe not; things are all over the cosmos. Maybe Asimov's ability with denouement left room for improvement. In terms of final outcomes, he at least managed a restoration of emotional equilibrium endings.
Learning grammar, I learned from emulating a sibling's learning in school and from parents and other adults, Beginnings were as much imitating adults first-, second-, and thirdhand. Young children learn from older children on up in age until at whatever age learning stalls. I also was rigorously taught the "rules" of grammar by rigid, steel ruler wielding grammarians who insisted there were no exceptions, probably because teaching the fundamentals is less troublesome and exceptions just confuse the concepts. Like math teachers taught there are no exceptions to the rules of math--I learned there are no absolutes, many exceptions. I realized writing and grammar "rules" are guidelines.
Learning is as much emulation and imitation as it is teaching and formal instruction and study. Childplay and make believe are imitating of grownups', at least older age children if not adult, behaviors and activities, learning how to cope, survive, manage, thrive in existence. Fiction writing is make believe, most often adult make believe, both writer creating make believe and reader persuauded to believe.
Computers may develop independent intelligence. True sentience is far more complex. Regardless, I believe computers are developmentally static, developmentally fixed at the age they are manufactured. How emotionally developed is a current generation computer? Intellectually developed? What are a computer's motivations to develop a more mature intelligence, sentience, emotional state, or what complusion to grow and change, transform? Curiosity? Self-survival? Reproduction? Because the mountain is there? Whatever, computer sentience will be more alien to humans than I believe we can imagine. But we can make believe we know through fiction.