Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rules and Anti-Rules, Generalizations All Around

In this month’s “The Writer’s Chronicle,” an article by Steve Kowit appeared, entitled, “A Poet’s Anti-Rule Book.” Now anyone who’s ever been remotely interested in writing immediately has an idea of what it's about before they even get to the first paragraph.

Throughout the internet and the course of writing textbooks, helpful blogs, and experienced teachers there has been an ever changing “list” of rules, that, when expressed seemed absolute to amateurs. In fact, the common saying is, “Learn the rules then learn to break them!” These lists include examples that would encourage better writing: things like, “Don’t ever use adverbs,” or “Don’t ever use said,” or, in some cases, “Always use said.”

There is a constant backlash against these rules, because, let’s be frank, they’re condescending.

If you’ve ever entered into a creative writing class, or even an English course, for that matter, you’ve had to come up against these things. The problem is is the teacher takes a very Shakespearean approach to making these mandates, telling you what they’re going to tell you to change, then telling you to change it, then telling you that they told you to change. From the beginning of the class one gets the idea of what they’re pet-peeves are—“Take out every single “you” in your essay”—and they ignore everything else. They give you rules that professionals never follow, and they do not take the story in context. When a teacher announces that one should never use a passive sentence, and then that’s all he criticizes, the student has a hard time believing that his actually story was being respected. Either the work is perfect, in which case the passive-sentences shouldn’t matter and the teacher had nothing else to say, or it still needed work, but the teacher couldn’t muster the effort to go deeper than what he was already looking for. Either way, it’s a little insulting.
So, immediately when I looked at this article, I had a good idea of what it was going to contain. The mistake I made was the assumption that he was going to be deeper about it than the thousand of back lashing I had seen before.

Kowit’s entire argument comprised of “Look at all these famous people who’ve done this thing you tell me not to do!” He berated against the “Show Don’t Tell,” theory, the “Anti-Cliché” doctrine, the “Use of Active Verbs” demand, and a whole grouping of things that I entirely agreed with, yet found his article thoroughly unconvincing, even when read by the choir.

The problem was, first and for most, I did not find that he actually knew what issues these blanket rules were intended for. He confused the idea of “Telling” with straightforward saying what happened. He explains that, “Any quick look at good writing will demonstrate that effective writers spend a great deal of their time telling the reader what is happening…”

These are the two mistakes he issued throughout the entire read. One being that the problem of “Showing not telling,” is not dealing with the problem of being “unpoetic” and just dictating what events are occurring, but a story having its believability ruined by the author not trying to prove what they are informing the audience should believe. In the book, The Soprano Sorceress, a current novel I am finding difficult to get through, L.E. Modesitt Jr. constantly tells the reader how she should feel about another character. In a scene in which two women are conversing, he presses his desire for how the reader is supposed interpret his work:

“‘From what you have said,’ Alasia continued, ‘and from what the sorcerer has said, it would seem that you are more powerful here. Is that true?’

‘That’s true.’ Anna said. This woman was very perceptive.’”

The line of one woman’s opinion on the other is an example of bald face telling. It functions as two writers' conveniences: he disguises the delivery of information (Anna’s strength in one world versus the next) as a demonstration for how brilliant Alasia is, and he proceeds to then inform us that she was brilliant for knowing that. Explanations like this feel very insulting. He is either not trusting the way he wrote it to be convincing enough for the reader to believe that she would know that, or he just believes that a reader wouldn’t have caught it on their own. Or he was merely being redundant. In any case, the line, “This woman was very perceptive,” seems out of place and unnecessary.

Again, I am not criticizing Kowit’s abrasion to the constant, pelting advice. I will not go into detail about my feelings on the subject because that is another blog in itself, however, I will say that though they are not consistently true, they can be useful.

That in mind, his complete dismissal of them seems a little more like a vendetta than a well thought out argument.

Other than that Kowit’s absence of arguing exactly what it is that is wrong with the Absolute Rules, he is further unconvincing when all his evidence to prove that it is foolish was written by famous poets in which have always been established to be above the rules.

Remember the mentality that one should learn the rules to know when break them? No one has ever argued that works already considered great would often go against the rules so pounded upon the “inexperienced.” No one argues that greats use these blanket generalizations to create their master pieces. In fact, no one really believes that obeying this decrees by the letter will a great work make. So, spending five pages arguing that one can’t say not to use adverbs because here are six famous people who use them, actually will not convince anyone of anything.

It is a more elaborate, and may I say, more cleverly done, version of an argument that has always come up since the rules are first introduced to a new victim. He, however, does not go into any more detail or put any deeper opinion into it than what the students in a beginning creative writing class has said. He just has specific examples.

All in all, the article angered me just as much as it would have been if it was “A Poet’s Rule Book.” I believed he completely took out of consideration on literature’s need for variation just as much as a teacher arguing the opposite does. I also feel that the article did not come to a better understanding as to how to teach writing, and it is just as useful to lead a teacher into better teaching styles as an absolute rule list would to a student to better writing styles.

Like an acting teacher once said to me, “You cannot act a ‘not’ doing something,” thus you cannot write by not writing something and you cannot teach by not teaching something.

Defining What Quality Is

Throughout my duration in writing, I’m constantly debating the subjectivity of “quality.” It is something that is hard to pinpoint, especially because of all the people who disagree on what the standards for quality are. Many teachers have told me that we’re not supposed to look into whether we like something; that’s not important. (Of course, I think that when they say that, what they mean is, “I think it’s good, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Which, at least considering that I often haven’t read the work in question, they’d be right.)

I’ve come to a conclusion on what my standards are onto whether or not something needs to be changed. It is the main objective I look for and hold most important when I am in a heated debate with myself.
Does it take you out of the story?

This is an idea that was brought to me when reading an interview with Jim C. Hines, the writer of Jig the Dragon Slayer. A reader commented on an inaccuracy in a very small description of the way something worked. His description of stalagmites were inaccurate. To this, Hines stated that though it was irrelevant to the story, he agreed with the critic on the grounds that the reader had been taken out of the story, suddenly unable to believe the situation, and quickly reminded that he is in fact reading a fictional book.

Therefore, when editing or discussing my work with someone, I think of criticism in those terms. If I use a word that stands out to the reader, even if it is the perfect choice albeit rare, then he is no longer thinking about the world, but contemplating why I picked that expression. If it seems to me that it is distracting, I immediately alter it, even if I chose that word specifically because I liked the poetic way it sounded.
Of course, the author then has to remember that just because one person was distracted doesn’t mean everyone will be. It may have very contextual. That’s when he would use his judgment call. And despite what people may say, I believe that the writer can see a situation for what it is once identified as long as he is willing.

Draft Eye

There is something that I like to call “Draft Eye” which I feel fits more aspects of life than just writing. However, when I talk about it, I’m going to refer to it mostly towards in literary terms—and as I say that I feel myself lying through my teeth—because that is where the idea can be utilized in a useful manner.
Having Draft Eye is a negative term indicating that the critic understands that this is a first draft and assuming there are mistakes accordingly.

This in itself is not a bad thing. That’s what one wants during an edit is for someone to be sitting there, finding the errors that they’ve made and preempting future problems for them. Being more critical than a normal reader covers more ground. To look at a draft and assume it is perfect before reading is idiotic and unhelpful. By the nature of what a draft is it means it will be riddled with typos and grammar errors and silly lines that make one’s gut clench when she sees how ridiculous it is. At least in the earlier stages.

Everything in moderation, however, and starting out with the assumption that the author is a moron is no way to go about it either.

Draft Eye relates explicitly to the relationship between a draft and a published work. Simply said, when one is reading a draft and something doesn’t make sense, then he assumes that the draft doesn’t make sense. When one is reading something published and it doesn’t make sense, he assumes that the reader made the mistake.

Pretty practical, actually. It would be a little egotistical to do it the other way around, and furthermore, doesn’t one want to rid himself of all the mistakes first, even the ones a reader would accept as her own?
Obviously. But again, moderation. There is a little problem in doing this, one that affects the editor’s ability to edit. If the editor reads that a character is sitting down when he believed that she was standing, he often just assumes without going back that the writer forgot to describe him sitting, and writes in, “She was standing a moment ago.” If, however, the writer did put that the character had pulled up a chair, this author assumes one of many things, depending on their rationality: the editor skipped that sentence and no change is necessary, the editor is an idiot and no change is necessary, or the work is utterly confusing and there's nothing to be done because he already said that the character had plopped on a stood. The writer then throws the whole thing out and then cries in the corner.

In assuming that the draft is not well thought out, the editor does not take as much consideration as to why something is a problem, which is just as important as what is a problem. Maybe the author did say that the character had sat, but the editor was confused on whom. Or maybe he did just skip it and the author needs to do nothing. Maybe nothing will ever come at it.

A better example would be of an actual example. I once read a short story written in a class in which the first sentence was, “Mary was deaf. Deaf, not mute.” The story went on to say how Mary was then proposed to and the first line she had was at the end of the tale in which she says, “Yes!”

The “Deaf, not mute” line clearly was a sentence imposed when someone using Draft Eye commented when she spoke for the first time, probably saying, “I thought she couldn’t speak!” This was the writer’s solution, which was not a good one, really, because it takes the reader right out of the description in a slightly amusing manner. If the story had been published with the deaf character talking in the end, the reader would not have thought that the author merely forgot that her character couldn’t talk, more likely either that he’d made a mistake in reading that she couldn’t speak or that the author was attempting for something that wasn’t clear. The comment was still needed, for the end of the story was diminished when the reader sat there wondering, “Wait, could she speak? Did I miss something?”

The fix of the adding the one simple, and a little sarcastic, line merely indicated the writer’s frustration at her editor. This is, of course, an example of the disrespect both writer and editor have towards each other, and the writer is at fault just as much. However, if one wishes to be a helpful, he has to take Draft Eye into a little consideration as he's working. The writer should also recognize that this is a possibility when reading comments. It helps on understanding how to take them.

Sympathetic Characters

There are two types of people in the world. When watching a movie, the viewer either envisions himself as the main character or actually superimposes himself into that movie. Which one is more egotistical? You got me.

However, I don’t think there is any other way to be entertained by something than wanting to be involved in it. Honestly, as I sit here and attempt to think of any other option, I can’t, which makes me believe this is a pivotal point in how the entertainment industry works. It is also the answer to the question, “What is a sympathetic character?”

Classical plays and novels tend to be of the utmost boring things that anyone has ever read, consistently, which doesn’t make any sense because they are the incorporation of a thousand different generations, a thousand different cultures, a thousand different writers and voices and opinions, and contain so much variation in the actual way of being made that some may assume that the only connection between all of them is me being the reader, so it must be my problem.

I’d like to point out that I am not the only one who hates most of the classics, even Mark Twain stating, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

Sifting through the 1001 works of literature that is considered some of the greatest work in the world, I have found a great correlation between what I despise and those that I can actually tolerate or even like.
Great dramas are absent of likable characters. For the most part. This is what, in the literary world, one could call a “sympathetic character” or a person that the audience can relate to.

For a while, I had determined that in order to have a sympathetic character, it requires another member of the roll call to like that character. Loyalty, my friends, is what it’s all about. What is the difference between the jerk and the rebel? A grouping of followers. The character can be likable if they have a certain level of loyalty from their friends. Honest loyalty, not the writer imposed kind, or the very self-deprecating sycophant kind in which the minion follows around the great hero like a puppy. I mean the kind of loyalty that is not necessarily consistent, but is there when it matters; such as Wilson on House whom will play pranks and tell the titular character, “No,” but will eventually end up helping his friend in the best way possible. And the other factor in this would be that the hero, on some level, would do the same.

For a while I believed that this was an idea centered around the mindset that the audience does not decide things without knowing what they are supposed to. But now, I contend that it simply has to do with the level of egotism that allows us to have our fun delusions and say that it is merely because no one wants to be in a world or be a character in which no one has any friends.


To be succinct and complex at the same time is a stunt that I can’t master on either spectrum. It takes the strongest intellect to drive across his point with only a few words, and the master of that art would be a man I wish to see.

There has been a revolution in the book world, the origin of which I am uncertain—but find myself straying a suspicious eye towards Dean Koontz—in which one word titles reign. Go into a book store and search out the newer sections; the romance or teen angst should do. Scan a glance across the shelves and see what you notice? Reading the titles takes absolutely no effort.

Twilight, Shattered, The Unnamed, The Help, Sizzle, and so on and so forth. Play a game and pick up a dictionary. First one to find a heading for every word wins. I do not know how this trend started. I am fully aware of why.

Honestly, Twilight probably caught so many people’s eye for its enigma. The non-descriptive cover and name say absolutely nothing on what to expect. I mean, why read something if you already know what it’s going to be about? All jokes aside, this tact has been a successful one. So to criticize these authors for making the choice of the minimal is not something that I want, nor wish to do.


Being one for variation, I really have to ask myself if they think that they are achieving what they strove for. Clearly it is an attempt to be dark, mysterious, enhancing a secret we can only hope is "depth." Yet, I do not find myself drawn to these books in any way. Shattered? It sounds as though the author was trying to be nihilist, philosophical, intelligent even, but is probably stretching it. It seems unlikely to be about anything shattered, odds are it only has a vague reference, and I often will not even understand the connection until I make a very long point to think about it. And, for that matter, since when do I care about breaking things? That title says to me that something was destroyed. That does tend to happen in stories. Although if I really wanted to know about violence, I’d read the police blotter.

My friends and I had a game called “Rename Twilight,” in which you pick a book that you both know and one of you says either a word, or an adjective and a noun, and the other one explains how it is a metaphor to the book. For example, Red Chair.

Red is the color of passion, of blood. It shows the love that Edward sees for Bella, and references  blushing, a clear indication, and contrast, that she is living. A chair is something you can put your weight on, that you can depend on. Bella sits on Edward, leaning on him for support. She needs him.

It's important to note that the author's original title was Forks. I’m absolutely certain Stephanie Meyer's editor pushed the new title because she liked the way it sounded, not as a reference to anything. At the end, for two seconds, they really strive to explain the title, saying, “Twilight is the only time we can be safe,” or whatever.

Does no one care about their names anymore? I mean, we work so hard on a book and then plaster it with a word that we believed is simply pretty? It’s not that I criticize anyone for not concerning themselves with the name of their book. I mean, there are many people who have so much in the actual writing that it’s not something they stress themselves with. Yet the one word approach feels as though they were trying, but not trying hard enough to think of anything really meaningful and clever, just something that kind of sounded like it was.

Originality's Futility

Originality used to horrify me, not in the way the dark does, but sort of like Dairy Queen when I'm on a low budget. I was obsessed with having it. It was the goal for my life, being unique in my writing, in my ideas, in the way I acted. I spent days at a time thinking about it, wondering how to do it, looking for and planning out how to achieve it.

There’s a thousand and ten quotes on how one can never prove completely unique. “All ideas have been done before and all of them will be done again.” I haven’t seen evidence against this yet.
Especially when I go on the internet.

Yet I sit there, knowing this, but have some sort of epiphany where I always think, “Yeah, no one's done this before!” and then see it somewhere else. Usually some odd place that I really don’t want to believe my ideas are similar to. And then I cry, remove the thought from my options, and go on to the next brilliant endeavor.
After years of being an artist, or whatever we're calling it these days, I began to learn my lesson. Being original is not the most important part of being successful, no matter what the definition of success is. To make something that others wouldn’t be bored with due to familiarity, one only has to be different. Different takes on many different forms.
An author could tell the tale about the poor farmer boy who grows up to be a hero, following every little direction The Hero's Journey says he should, just so long as the other elements have something unique to them. Like say the boy wanted to be a woman. Though I’m not sure how many fans of that plot line would be able to relate. Or it could be simply the time period that changes, being that it’s a farm boy of the 1930’s who grows up to be a capitalist after World War II.
I mean, I realize this. I have come to this conclusion and I accepted it. No more would my focus be on astounding people with things they’ve never seen before. No. I will just be honest and astound them with aspects that they’ve always ignored.
So why is it that every time I get on the internet I begin to slip back into depression?
I still believe that I am special and no one is like me, yet when I click from page to page, blog to blog, I begin to see people with the thoughts that I have coveted, with the humor I prized, with the writing style, the interests, the slighted views, the tastes, and the all around essence of me pasted in bits and pieces.
I wanted to start this blog and think of a way to avoid the types of things other bloggers did that I judged. I can’t do it, mostly because those I judge are too close to me.
Therefore, I’m writing a blog, like all the other writing blogs you’ve seen before, and will just have to bemoan it later. I have things needing to be said. God knows I can't get anyone I actually know to listen.

Hiding Chekov's Gun

“Chekov’s Gun” is a writing device named for the master playwright, Anton Chekov, who once said if a writer puts a gun in the first act, someone better shoot it in the second. There are, of course, arguments as to what exactly he is indicating, some believing he means, “don’t go into inane details that don’t affect the story later,” some saying it means “don’t foreshadow something and never talk about it again.” Or, like any saying, it could be one of the multitudes personal interpretations. For my point right now, it is not about what he means, but the best way to go inserting Chekov’s gun into a story without broadcasting that that’s what it is.

In a story, the author often wishes to foreshadow major events, yet he does not want it to be completely predictable. He does not want to tell the audience a character has a gun because then they'll know she is obligated to fire it. But if that gun appears without mention, they can feel tricked.

One of Crime and Punishment's  greatest criticisms is when a man attempts to finally attack the woman he is obsessed with and she pulls a gun on him. Readers wondered why she had the gun in the first place? How she could have predicted it happening right then? They felt that it was a writer’s convenience, led by the author’s ability to just give her a gun rather than find another way for her to escape him.

This happens commonly enough. Something extraordinary is going to happen in the novel—murder, great escape, coincidence—something that ordinary people don’t usually contend with, and it is contingent on the character having some object or doing something that enables the story to continue with ease.

Hence why hiding Chekov’s Gun can be imperative. If the author wants to establish that a character would have a gun, yet not announce that he is going to shoot someone, he needs to be subtle about it. He has to underplay the importance of the foreshadowing, hiding the fact that it is foreshadowing, yet being unforgettable enough that the reader remembers the item.

I have four suggestions for an author to hide a very specific detail into a story. Though it can be anything, really, I will use an actual gun as an example being it is not an ordinary object and will draw attention to itself.

1. Hiding it in humor.

One of the key elements in hiding something that will be important latter is hiding why the author is talking about it at all. Though very much criticized among the editing world, authors will often include lines, moments, or even scenes that are merely just there for a laugh and do nothing for the point. Any time in which the reader finds something humorous, he recognizes this fact and will not think too hard on the moment, understanding that the ultimate reason for its being was for the entertainment and probably nothing else. Therefore, it’s the perfect time to introduce the something else.

If the author forms a joke at the same time of the "Gun's" introduction, the reader will remember it, but dismiss it as unimportant.

For example, instead of describing the gun as a being a mounted shotgun on the wall, the author would have the crotchety old grandfather tell a traveling salesman to get off his property before he shoots him with it, to which the grandson replies, “That thing still works?”

Of course, in this example, you’ll recognize there is more than just humor to hide the importance of the gun. There is the establishing of the character’s relationships, the grandfather’s personality, the grandson’s opinion of him, and, mostly, it is a bit of a stereo type in which an old man would have a gun to run off a salesman, so the reader would be more inclined to believe that the gun is in its natural environment than something superimposed by the author for future events.

2. Hiding it amongst junk

A more common and easier way to hide the gun would be to describe it along with a good deal of other unimportant items that seem to relate. Placing a hunting rifle in a den filled with animal heads would not be unusual, and the author describing it could just easily be saying, “Look at this place of death.” Describing the gun as a form of decoration, going into great detail about a lot of the different items hanging from the wall, or placing it in a situation it would be expected to be there are all ways of concealing the writer’s true motive. Of course, though easiest to insert into a story without needing to change or add anything, this is also one of the least foolproof ways, being that it is not always what you are describing, but the way you are describing it.

A good example would be, “John walked into the room and stared. The walls were filled with every item known to man. The picture frames seemed to be pushing each other off. Landscapes, posters, medals, plaques, and any other item known to man was hanging thinly. The fireplace mantle was covered with glasses and trophies, a hanging shotgun mounted below the antlers jutting out from the wall.”

Giving John an opinion explained why the author was describing it. He was amazed at all the junk, so therefore he’d be attentive to it. Putting the shotgun as not the only description in its sentence made its importance diminished.

One can also merely do this by giving him more than one of the item in question, stating that he had all kinds of different guns. Because having one gun makes it important, the more he has, the less rare it is, and the less of a big deal. And the house could just as easily be modestly furnished and this technique would still work, one would just have to pay attention to the little details. However, if the author is describing an everyday modern house, perfectly clean and modestly decorated, a gun may be out of place no matter how nonchalant the character plays it up as.

3. Hiding it behind a Magoffin

This is very similar to hiding it behind junk, except in explaining a lot of things in detail, the author explains another object in much more detail.

An object that looks important, but isn’t, is dubbed a Magoffin, a common term used by Alfred Hitchcock. The use of a Magoffin has many abilities in drawing attention away from what the author doesn’t want the readers to note, and it is a useful device in a good number of situations. Magoffins are also often criticized because people don’t like being tricked, and they feel unsatisfied when nothing comes of this “important” moment.

But, when using a Magoffin in terms of Chekov’s gun, the author is essentially hiding the important object behind a trivial object, making the latter seem much more important than it was, leaving the other in obscurity.

For example, “John could not stop staring at the face of the clock. It’s time had only dots instead of numbers, the hands moving about in a way that seemed too slow to be a second. He watched it without even realizing the absorption it held him in, his face gaping in a horrified, awed manner. Nothing told of death the way that clock did. Not the actual gun sitting on the mantle, not his elderly grandfather who glowered at him from the corner. There was something about that machine that frightened him terribly.”

4. Hiding it in an intimate moment

This one is probably the best choice for writing on the grounds that it kills two birds with one stone. It is also using the same idea as the Magoffin, being that one is hiding the point behind something more important, the only difference being that what it is hiding behind, actually is significant. If able, the author can choose to describe the gun for the first time by having it revolve around a pivotal point. With the obvious point of the scene being that the couple kissed for the first time, or the characters are finally told the father is cheating, or whatever the main idea of the scene is, the reader doesn’t very much think to pay attention to descriptive details.

For example, “John and Jenny stared up at his father’s shotgun mounted over the fireplace in silence, neither daring to speak. Jenny looked at the man, wondering what he was thinking. Without meaning to, he glanced over and met her gaze. She smiled at him, and he turned away. She did the same, but now lacing her hand with his. He held tight.”

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