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Just Write?

Discussion in 'Fanfic Discussion' started by Blorcyn, Nov 3, 2019.

?

Writing Theory on structure, acts, theme and such?

  1. It's important to know

  2. It's important in some contexts

  3. Take it or leave it

  4. It's snake-oil nonsense

Results are only viewable after voting.
  1. Blorcyn

    Blorcyn Death Eater DLP Supporter DLP Silver Supporter

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    Is it Right to Just Write?

    Today, Vereornox, Halt and I responded to a request by Methos who was looking for a book on story-telling on Discord. We all had different perspectives on whether it was worthwhile, his looking for a book. No, sometimes and yes, respectively.

    I've been thinking about it for the day, and this evening I've started a fresh book. The preface dealt almost exclusively with this, and I felt it important to open it up to the wider forum. To try and get some discussion on it and find what the mainstream opinion is on DLP. We often talk about how we do things here, but I want to know why we do things too, and whether we try and learn about the why as well as the how.

    The preface comes from: Into the Woods, John Yorke, published 2015, from the preface to the paperback.

    I’ll leave it there as the rest of the preface goes onto state his argument, and I’m interested in yours not his, but I’ll add on the conclusion so as not to blue-ball you.

    My view on writing theory:
    I’m a big proponent of books, as anyone who’s seen any of my waffley reviews can likely tell. I often worry it makes me a bit of a prick, but I do it anyway because I’ve been convinced and ‘bought in’ to the idea that there’s merit in studying anything that might help me understand what lies beneath a story’s surface.

    I’m not talking, entirely, about dialogue tags or dialogue or even the prose itself, on a sentence to sentence basis. I guess I’m talking about structure and the purpose of structure.

    I believe it’s not the majority opinion on the forum. In the past, when I was looking for recommendations on stuff, I’d often receive the same advice: just read and write.

    However, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I don’t agree.

    Certainly, it’s not the read and write part that I disagree with. Who can be a writer without having read a book? Who can literally write without writing?

    It's the ‘just’ that doesn’t do it for me any more.

    In Stephen King’s On Writing—which is far as you can get from the standard writing craft book (with its being: 1. written by one of the most famous living authors in the world rather than some mysterious figure of authority and 2. Being half memoir on the things which made him the author he is, and what he actually does when writing the books we’ve read)—he talks about when he was studying English as a college student.

    He talks about how he kind of hid his story-writing and wrote poetry and how the college circles would use poetry, and view it as something that comes from within and bubbles in, a creative force that doesn’t do well for limitations.

    I think ‘just write’ is viewed with this style of orthodoxy, in the sense that it is actually the majority position, even though creative folk are generally anti-orthodoxy, and rightly so. It’s not cool, it’s not in keeping with the spirit of creativity to want to try and pin story down, like a butterfly on a corkboard. You channel a demiurgic power, write, cultivate it and grow better and more artistic as you go—inherently.

    This is the part where it falls down. Certainly, experience is the GOAT teacher. Just like write is the essential part of being a writer. That’s not what I’m getting at. What I’m getting at is that writing is, in no essential way, different to singing, dancing, fighting or playing an instrument. Writing your story needs your soul, just like playing a song needs your soul in it. But no one suggests you should practice on a trumpet to the exclusion of learning musical notation, having a teacher, practising songs and styles that have come before you and learning grade theory. To break out your own vibe, you need to really understand what you’re breaking out from.

    I feel this is the point where we point out the exemplary figures of history, but it’s not relevant. That’s not most, and this concerns what most should be doing. I’m concerned with what you think should be the majority practice. In the same way that Einstein being the GOAT in a patent office doesn’t mean a more standard academic career is useless.

    In general, like in most skills or exercise, most of us will plateau if practice alone is all we cleave to, I believe. Looking beyond ourselves to other sources to try and find a way to keep improving is how we prevent ourselves from becoming a Darth Marrs or whoever you want to put in there.

    However, the thing that I have found is, in agreement with the article above, there isn’t terribly much concordance and in plenty of cases it’s often the partially sighted leading the blind.

    I certainly agree there’s a danger in cleaving too tightly to any one theory, but I don’t see how this is different from taking an empirical approach in any setting. A lot of this is pinned by a belief that the quality of my writing has improved by the last couple of years of theory study, and that a developing understanding of what I believe are the underpinning processes has accelerated my writing more quickly than in those previous years when I simply wrote, and did nothing else to improve.

    I think it’s worth a thread, to see what you all think and where you come down on the issue:

    1. What do you think about writing theory, does it have a place in learning to write well? In whole, part or not at all?

    2. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? Are you lead by insight, reputation or how you find it applies to your own work when you employ it?​

    I'm genuinely interested. As Uncle Iroh says: Fire is the element of power. 'It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.'

    Show me if I'm leaning too heavily on one source, and if so where else you've found wisdom on writing, I'm always on the lookout for things that change my mind and offer that half-second flash of insight.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2019
  2. Sorrows

    Sorrows Queen of the Flamingos Moderator DLP Gold Supporter

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    Personally I think the reason authors tell people that they need to 'just write' is not because the purity of creativity is tainted by admitting to the mechanics of writing theory. It is because 99% of the conversations they have about it go as follows:

    Fan: I love your work, I really want to be an author, I have all these ideas how do I do it?

    Author: Well once you have written your first draft...

    Fan: Oh I've not exactly finished it yet...

    Author: Well what have you written?

    Fan: I'm more at the conceptual stage. How do you manage it?

    Author: Have you written anything?

    Fan: Well...

    People know that to play a trumpet well you need to practice, even if you sound awful. This fact seems to escape a surprising number of prospective authors.

    As for writer theory. It is a toolset, you have to find the parts of it that work for you. Not all of it will, but understanding the concepts beind the stories we admire and want to emulate is never not going to be useful.

    I do think it can hinder some people who get so caught up in the mechanics of their idea that it hinders their ability to 'just write' and also finish things. People can be reluctant to translate their unassailable idea into imperfect words on a page. The idea you can engineer the perfect story if you just grasp the concepts can become another excuse not to write the damn thing.
     
  3. Niez

    Niez Third Year

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    The problem, I think, with style books or books on storytelling is that the time spent in reading and digesting them is usually better spent writing (or simply reading). This is twice fold; one because even worthwhile books take their time to make their points, and two because it is honestly hard to find worthwhile guides in the first place. It is ironic you mention Into the woods, because it is one of the few books I have started and never finished. My impression was, if I recall correctly, and not to belabor the point, that I could simply open up a good novel and glimpse what the author was clumsily trying to say in the prose of the novel itself.

    Using your metaphor, which in itself evidences how sometimes an insight is better passed on indirectly, learning musical notation or learning grade theory, which we all agree are necessary conditions towards playing an instrument, are in my opinion not synonymous with learning story structure, but instead with learning basic grammar and syntax (perhaps even the alphabet). They are the very basic tools of the trade, without which the discipline itself is impossible. Fortunately most of us who have completed our basic education have been taught those things, at least when it comes to writing, meaning that further study in those fields yields increasingly diminishing returns, versus just putting the damned instrument in your mouth and begin to blow (don't go there).

    I think books on structure, style, etc. are (thus) are more aptly compared with studying composition. Now you could study composition, and it would probably make you a better musician, but most musicians only do it because it's required, and there are have been many in the past who did not (think classical composers) and were fine. More than fine, really, they inspired those classes which now try to deconstruct what they achieved, proving that the knowledge they impart was not necessary to do so in the first place.

    In any case this reminds me of a discussion between Steven Pinker and Ian McEwan on good writing (I link it below for those who are interested) where Pinker asks McEwan whether he has any books on style he regularly consults for his writing, remarking that when he puts that question to others authors they mostly reply with ‘no’. McEwan replies that he does, but only one, and that the rest he does by reading and writing.

    Perhaps therein lies the key. Find the one that does it for you and use it as a crutch, and then let your imagination (and pen) run free.



    Btw, you are definitely the mostest unpricks there are. Your dedication towards justifying your points in your reviews is admirable, compared with how I usually go about it, which is more or less; don’t like it, change it.
     
  4. Ched

    Ched Da Trek Moderator DLP Supporter

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    I think it's like anything else... there's a learning curve that requires practice, correction, knowledge, etc.

    You can start out 'just writing' and produce crap tons of words. That will work so long as you continually improve. It will take a while and it's possible you will never figure out why your writing is bad.

    You can read book after book on writing and learn all sorts of concepts, and it might make you a fantastic beta-reader, but no matter how much you read you're very unlikely to sit down and write a story properly without practice.

    Those methods above work for a rare few people who are either truly self-taught or brilliant enough to apply a million little things to the first thing they write.

    Most of us need a mixture of that. Read a book on writing. Go write. Get feedback. Realize that all that stuff you read about, well, you're not applying it. Go back and try again. Read another book. Try to apply that. Slowly start to recognize and correct issues in your writing.

    I think that's what works for most people, but with varying percentages focused on the 'reading about writing' versus the actual 'writing for practice.' Without writing you can't improve. But without reading books about writing it is much harder to figure out how you can improve.
     
  5. Agayek

    Agayek Half-Blood Prince DLP Supporter

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    Honestly, while I definitely agree with you in general, I feel like it's less necessary to read books about good writing, and more to read books written well.

    Like, the more you read, the more you're able to tell when someone does a particular rhetorical flourish, or guides the reader's attention, or any of a billion and one other things, and then you're able to start comparing those things both to examples from other works and your own work. It shows you both how a thing is done, and why, through your own thought patterns and perspectives, and that's a lot more valuable, IMO, than any amount of technical knowledge.

    Maybe I'm just crazy, but I've always found that a writing textbook is infinitely less useful than, say, the Lord of the Rings when it comes to teaching the principles and ideas behind good writing.
     
  6. Halt

    Halt 1/3 of the Note Bros. Moderator

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    It is possible to improve by just writing without theory. The inverse is not true.

    Which is not to say that I think theory and books on writing are useless---the fact that I wrote several articles on writing is proof that I believe there is value to theory. But getting caught up on theory alone can be an excuse not to write. Without practice, these concepts don't really come to life.

    There's a difference between knowing something and knowing something.

    Now theory would be great for someone like, say MegaMatt who wrote a metric fuckton of words and still hasn't gotten better. If you find yourself on a plateau on something, theory can help unpack your hangups, teach you how to look at things in new ways.

    But I think the vast majority of people who want to write don't write enough, which is why it is the main advice for people. If someone was writing 1k a day and still wanted to get better, then yeah I'd recommend a good book or a podcast or a video to ponder on.

    Now, with respect to things like the three arc structure (and other things), I don't write with that in mind. Only when I'm doing a post mortem to see what went wrong do I pull out these ideas to see if they can help. Personally, they feel more like a hindrance to actual writing if focused too much on, although it does work for some.
     
  7. Ched

    Ched Da Trek Moderator DLP Supporter

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    I agree and yet at the same time don't.

    I agree that it is very important to read books that are written well. It will improve your own writing, etc. This is probably THE most important thing.

    But I didn't start to notice why those books were written well, personally, until I'd read 1-2 books about writing. Once I'd done that I started picking up on what made my favorite books so damn good. In this way I think reading fanfic helped as well, because it's usually poorly written, and it let me place ideas from 'how to write' into a context of 'oh, yeah, THAT'S why this fanfic sucks, okay, got it.'

    Disclaimer: I still suck at writing and, yes, it's because I don't write enough.
     
  8. Joe

    Joe The Reminiscent Exile ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    Writing theory is important to know. You need to know the rules to know when to break them.

    As for the rest, well, you can't steer a parked car - just write.
     
  9. Blorcyn

    Blorcyn Death Eater DLP Supporter DLP Silver Supporter

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    In the context of just writing — a further question — what do you think of writing exercises?

    Often, websites/books will prescribe a specific exercise of something they’ve discussed. A prompt or a challenge of technique.

    I’ve seen, in the past, recommendations to copy a well-written book’s chapter and try and see how the language feels when you write it OR to try and rewrite a chapter in your voice OR to try and make notes on a book as you read through it. Try and analyse it in your own style, without reference to other models - see how you think it works?

    Personally, I’m not a fan of the random prompts/exercises at the end of most chapters because they don’t excite me and I do this for fun. However, with the Harry Potter illustrated books, I’ve been copying bits and writing notes on it as I go through, partly to slow me down and actually take it in, as being on the xth rereading I tend to skim HP now, even when I try and slow down.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2019
  10. Agayek

    Agayek Half-Blood Prince DLP Supporter

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    I feel like, by and large, writing exercises are decent tools for practicing/learning a very specific thing, but a complete waste of time if you don't already know what you want to get out of it going in. More practice is always good, and challenging yourself to write X or whatever is a means to practice, so it's always good too.

    But if you don't have a specific goal in mind, if you're not sure where you've been going wrong and just want to improve your writing in general, no amount of writing exercises are going to help.
     
  11. Agent

    Agent Groundskeeper DLP Supporter

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    Agree with everyone else that writing exercises are, for the most part, not that beneficial.

    Writing is one of those things where you learn by doing. And even then, you still need someone to critique your work with unbiased eyes.

    Writing exercises can beneficial to introduce concepts rather than improve upon them. I remember back in school my English teacher told us to pick one Comic Book/Graphic Novel and novelise the first ten pages. She was trying to emphasise the whole "A picture tells a thousand words" thing but it also helped us with our descriptive writing.
     
  12. cucio

    cucio Fourth Year

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    This is a debate that appears recurrently (and tediously) in music forums, about the evils of studying music theory.

    There are many paths towards improving your ability in a certain craft, but they could be roughly grouped in three categories:

    1) Trial and error: with or without external input, you just try stuff until you get something satisfying. This may easily lead to investing time reinventing the wheel, but that's exactly what some people need to absorb that knowledge. This is also the path that leads to breakthroughs in the craft.

    2) Learn by example: you get a mentor and try to mimic their style. The classic "imitate, assimilate, innovate" line from jazz trumpet player Clark Terry. This includes analysing masterworks, or just stuff you like the most or find the most interesting. If you have personal contact with your mentor you get guidance and feedback, a master and apprentice situation.

    3) Academy/theory. People tend to see theory and practice as two separate things, but this is a superficial view. Theory is (should be, if not perverted into an end on itself) practice distilled, a resource-efficient way to propagate the tools a long line of masters of the craft discovered and perfected through the ages. In arts, it is the purposeful application of our rational capability to emotional pursuits, a set of best practices to achieve specific results, that what makes stuff tick. Again, the dichotomy between rationality and emotion is a false one: your emotional range changes and grows with experience, like your taste for different foods. Yes, there is the ineffable, that what can't be described, analyzed or taught. But a good scaffolding and a broad toolset help reach for those inspiration gems that are so seldom within our grasp. Theory only stifles those who haven't properly learned to view it as a tool, not as an end result.

    Those three improvement avenues are not exclusive, quite the contrary, they are complementary and the most benefit lies in exploring all of them. Some would find a greater affinity for just one of them, perhaps, but they all contribute to a well-rounded creator.

    Most of the time, if you dig deep into those composers' biographies, you find out that this is a myth. Creators gifted by the gods and acquiring their craft out of nowhere are extremely rare. Even in times of J. S. Bach there were already widely spread (for the time) theory texts, and the master-apprentice relationship is old as man. For instance, an anecdote in Bach's biography tells us that he walked for days just to listen Buxtehude play.
     
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