Monday, July 03, 2006

How to write stuff

Being that my writing of the English is to be gooder than youse’s, I am oftentimes asked for upon hints about how to rite rite. So to you, my loyal readers, I say – feck off.

Sorry, that was reflex. Actually, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned over the years is “Don’t let anybody tell you how to write.” Of course, that doesn’t apply to me. I expect you to obey my every command without question. I’m talking about those other morons. That’s one of the first things I encountered when I began to take writing seriously – there is no shortage of people out there who want to give you help and advice, and pretty much all of them should be ignored (exceptions – me and Stephen King).

Some of the earliest advice I read recommended joining a writer’s group, particularly for peer critiquing. I found the local association, paid my dues, and joined the nearest critique group – at the time, over fifty miles away; now, ironically around the corner from where I live. The group I joined was open to all writers of fiction. We each submitted the first chapter of our manuscripts (or the whole thing in the case of short stories), took a week to read the other’s writings, added our notes, and then met to discuss.

I’ll spare you the blow by blow, but the way it worked every week was that we gathered in the leader’s apartment, had a few snacks, the others complimented each other on their writing while offering a few minor suggestions, and then they politely shredded me in a cold-hearted literary fashion. Sheer determination kept me from quitting. At one point they had me convinced that I not only had no talent, but that I completely lacked the ability to create a coherent sentence. I began to observe the group rather than blindly follow their constructive cruelty, and by the end of my year with the writer’s association I learned the following about them:

1) All were women, most pursuing a feminist literary PhD.
2) Their teachings were absolute laws, not guidelines for writing.
3) None of them read anything beyond their assigned writings.
4) Despite openly criticizing my work for its failure to follow their rules, when we weren’t officially meeting, they usually liked to talk about my writing instead of each others’.
5) They were all excited that they were writing stories that had never been written before, even though they didn’t notice they were each writing the same basic story – the tale of a woman in a bad job and a bad relationship who is eventually set free from both. I think it’s been done before, maybe more than once.
6) They really were nice people just trying to help.

If anyone wants to hear more about my adventures in writing or with the writer’s group, let me know. Otherwise I’ll just leave it at this.

If you insist on reading a book about the craft of writing, I recommend SK’s On Writing. His opinions mostly concur with the lessons I’ve learned (although I may not have learned them if I read rather than experienced them), and even if you don’t like his stories he has a straight-forward no BS approach to his essays.

15 comments:

patti_cake said...

I heart Stephen King, my fave of all time "Salem's Lot". I hope to get around to reading you soon! Oh and when in doubt "feck off" always works!

Kira said...

Yes, for fiction, creativity needs to reign. However, formal non-fiction writing has certain rules that should be obeyed. Non-fiction has as its purpose largely to inform or persuade, so there are certain rules one should follow to present it properly and to be understood. Poetry and all forms of fiction writing, however, break rules all the time. If they never did, they'd get rote and boring, and the point of fiction is to entertain. Sometimes people break rules just to break rules in writing, and there's a specific name for those individuals...wait, lemme think, I can remember it...oh yeah, idiots. The classic example of that was given to me breathlessly when I was in graduate school by one instructor. I was supposed to be "amazed" that this one writer wrote a whole book wherein each chapter had the next letter to the alphabet as a theme, and each sentence started out with that letter. Um, ok... But otherwise, each person has a specific writing style, and one thing I learned as a teacher is that if you destroy the student's natural writing style, you will condemn him or her to mediocrity.

JohnB said...

Sounds like that writer's group was the official guild for the Lifetime network...cannot BELIEVE that they didn't like your stuff! Either that or they were closet mormons...

Tracy Lynn said...

The most important thing about writing that I learned, from SK oddly enough, is to find your own voice.

Writers with literary pretensions tend to find me less than interested in their output. I like my stories to have, oh, narrative, character development, tension, all those old fashioned types of things.

All the 'art' stuff generally makes me go "Meh.".

mal said...

I have a feeling that my english lit and comp teachers would have flunked Hemingway and Steinbeck if they had them for students before they became accepted as literary giants.

I am sure it si one of the reasons I chose engineering instead *L*

Death Warmed Over said...

Stephen King's On Writing is a must read for any writer, and the most influencial writing book I have ever read.

Mel said...

So 'Writing Stuff for Dummies' not good? Rats!

Enemy of the Republic said...

I read King's book and it is good. Some of the other writing books vary: I have quite a collection. At some point I will tell you some that I think are helpful and others that are sheer trash. I didn't care for Rita Mae Brown's book. I've joined a few groups for my poetry and prose at times, and I can handle the criticism--sometimes the points are good, sometimes what comes out is that the reader just can't understand what I am saying--I am using obscure metaphors and references that they've never seen. In my mind, that is their problem, not mine. I'll give you an example: in one of my poems, I used the term SRO for those sleazy hotels that many people live who are one step away from homelessness--a common term for the place, but the group I was in had many of the kinds of females that you described--upper class, and they knew nothing of the poor or the mentally ill who end up living in these places. They told me to change the reference to make it clearer to the reader and I refused, saying that this worked, and it wasn't like I was referring to some Latin work a la T.S. Eliot. I don't write beach fiction or poetry. So it helps to be critiqued, sometimes only because you want to know how readers will react to your stuff.

PBS said...

A writer's group didn't work for me either. They called my writing "childish" well, maybe it is but it's how I write. Too bad. Using a thesaurus to substitute regular words for bigger ones isn't really my thing. I think their writing was pompous and stilted!

Nobius said...

"On Writing" is one of my favorite books. Even if you don't have aspirations to write it's a wonderful read.

Thanks for the Warren Ellis link, if I like it, I'll blog it.

If you have some funny stories about your writing club you should share it.

Grant said...

patti_cake - my SK favorite is Hearts in Atlantis - in fact, my favorite book of all time. Every aspiring writer should read that - it demonstrates a few basic writing styles, and the opening paragraph breaks many rules I've been told are absolute (yet somehow he continues to get published).

kira - I agree on basic form - experimental writing styles should be limited to short stories, if used at all (I've never read a good story written in 2nd person POV). I'll write more on the rules the group espoused. I think you'll be shocked by their limitations.

johnb - I think their motto should have been "Men shouldn't write."

tracy - I thought I was an original genius when I coined that phrase (finding my voice) in my early twenties, then I discovered it's something that most writers learn on their own. I'm with you on literature - I prefer commercial fiction. I think many of the commercial writers actually have more insight than the literary windbags, they just don't have the fawning support of the critics.

mal - most of my English teachers were the same way - they had to be told a writer was good by the critics before accepting them. My last professor often bashed Stephen King. One student finally asked what, specifically, she didn't like about his writing. She had to admit she hadn't actually read anything by him, but it was widely known that he was a hack.

death - I agree it's great, although it wasn't too influential because I had already learned most of what he said on my own. It's more inspirational to me - reminds me that SK is a flawed human and not some unstoppable writing machine.

mel - I'm not a big fan of any of the Dummies books. They spend too much time trying to be cute.

enemy - mostly I stay away from writing advice. I'll listen and consider, but I've learned there's no such thing as an expert on good art. Also, to be fair, some of the comments the group made were helpful, but the majority came from the rules imposed on them, rules that published writers don't follow. I'll post more on that later.

And although I agree somewhat about learning the readers' reactions, "pretentious feminists who don't read" is not my target group.

pbs - yeah, many wannabe writers (especially the ones that dream of fame and fortune) tend to be pretentious and highly critical of the work of others.

nobius - OW is entertaining as well as informative. I loved the anecdotes of his life, especially growing up.

I'll at least post some of the rules they tried to impose. From previous comments, I don't think people truly appreciate how restrictive they were.

messiah said...

late (as always) but....

advice? i'll add orson scott card in to that list. want to know why? go read some of his stuff (i highly recommend ender's game, although i have everything he's written i can find)

as for the femenist literary ph d group? well.... i had an english lit book in one of my courses called 'squandering the blue'. it was good. it was interesting. it was a collection of short stories with a common theme.

it sounds better than what they were doing. (it's worth a read if it's still around)

Liz said...

This reminds me of a similar situation with a history professor. I went in to ask why I had received a C- on a paper. He said my writing was so awful he barely knew what I was trying to convey. His suggestion was for me to take some English courses. That is when I told him I was finishing my second degree up next semester and it was English. Some people just don’t like what you say because of who you are. Four months later I gave him a huge smile as I passed him on the stage graduating Summa Cum Laude. Just feck em!

SJ said...

1) the save the woman from a bad situation has been written about since Cinderella.

2) I would liek to hear more about the Orgy I mean Writer's group.

3) My advice to you is ...

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