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Anyone else hate "how to do ___" writing advice?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Mythopoet, Jan 11, 2018.

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  1. Hallen

    Hallen Scribe

    I think that the learning process is important and most people don't know where to start. Sure, most of us can sit down and rip out a story, or part of one, without any learning because we are storytellers. That raw intent should be something that we encourage all new writers to nurture.

    But, once you go back and read that story, and realize that it's awful, and you realize you have no idea how to fix it, then you realize you could use some help.

    Forums like this will always -- ALWAYS -- be rife with basic, introductory questions. Often, the best answer is the basic craft answers. Why? Because most of them do apply, in some way, and there is no way of knowing what will or will not work for a particular person.

    I think that saying 'so many people who approach writing with the mindset of "These are the tools of writing. These are the right tools because they are the tools I used and they worked for me" ' is a bit of a straw man. I think there may be a few people like this, but the vast majority are like us in that we see the various craft methods as a way to potentially learn more, or when talking to a new writer, may be something that will trigger a step forward.

    If you are not always discovering or inventing, then you have probably stagnated. These types of discussions can spark ideas even if the tool in question doesn't really work for you.

    However, for those of us who have spent many years on various writing forums, it does get repetitive and it does start to seem like everybody wants a magic bullet when the real solution is the heart and imagination of a true storyteller which is something that cannot really be taught.
    Heliotrope likes this.
  2. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

    I love reading other people's blogs and articles on writing, even if they're bullshit. It's fascinating. Sometimes a controversial piece will entertain me. It's all good.

    Toss me in the 'I Love Writing Articles' bag.
    Lisselle likes this.
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Most definitely, writing is more subjective . But there are certain elements of writing that I'd say aren't subjective, grammar, story structure, showing vs. telling, POV, etc. To me, they form a foundation of understanding that can help a person become a better writer. It's not the tools that make a good writer. It's how they use those tools.

    For example, it doesn't matter if a person shows or tells, because its neither right or wrong to do. What matters is a person understands what it is in all its forms and what the pros and cons are to using each.

    Part of the artistry comes when a writer makes choices of when to apply showing or telling, or to use this tool vs that tool.

    I think this goes back to the OP in that a when I look at a How-To-Do-X book, article, etc, I look at it as only showing how one particular tool or set of tools works. It's up to me if I want to use that tool or tools or set them aside, and also, it's up to me to find out what other tools are out there that enable me to do the same thing.

    As an aside, subjectivity and artistry come into say programming by way of making choices in the way a piece of software is implemented, from language, design structure, all the way down to how elegantly the code is written. Code writing can be very much like prose writing, it can be clunky and ugly and very difficult to read, or it can be elegant and be a pleasure to read. It all depends on the desire and skill of the programmer.
  4. Annoyingkid

    Annoyingkid Banned

    Ironically, this is a "needs to be ___" absolute, so you're doing what you're complaining about.
    Russ likes this.
  5. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    Well, that's the thing with 'all things are subjective', such a statement cannot be subjectively true.

    I agree with all of the above, except for adverbs. Adverbs are killers of prose and should never used ;)
  6. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    To the OP's point, there were good storytellers and writers long before "writer's tools" were ever a point of discussion. Obviously, it must be possible for people to be good storytellers without need for discussing any of the tools they employ, or even realizing they employ the tools. In my youth, I told stories to my siblings and kept them entertained for hours, with no training in storytelling. They could have walked away from me at any time, and being kids, they would have if they'd been bored. If someone back then had asked me how I was able to tell entertaining stories, I could not have given a satisfactory answer.

    , I've always read a lot, and through my reading, I learned techniques from examples, even if I could not put a name to the techniques. If now--fifty years later--I feel capable of discussing storytelling techniques, despite how many stories I have or have not published or even written, then why shouldn't I do so? How many other people have experiences like mine? Why shouldn't they engage in discussions too?

    There's the issue of whether people take a prescriptive or authoritative tone when talking about how to tell stories effectively. I suspect such a tone is easy to take when recounting one's own beliefs. I've read writing advice saying not to point out how what you write is your opinion, because readers will assume it anyway. To my observation, those people who say they are annoyed by essays on the subject of writing are not the people who they are concerned will take the essays as prescriptive or authoritative. In essence, those who complain are concerned that others will fall prey to the prescriptive or authoritative essays, taking them too literally. This is the same argument used by censors down the ages, that they know better what is good for others. I find it ironic that any writer would think it a good thing to censor other writers. If we find other writers annoying (as opposed to dangerous, whatever that means, as has been discussed in other threads), I don't feel we should attempt to persuade them to stop writing whatever they want to write, in whatever manner they choose to write it.

    That's not to say we have to stay quiet about being annoyed. :)

    In other words, I get the OP's point, but don't think there's anything to do about it other than to express the annoyance and move on.
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  7. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    Very well said, Michael!

    I would like to add that the arts and magic of Storytelling pre-dates not only the famous writing rules, but the books industry too and even written language itself. This does not mean that there is no value in the elements of the writing rules and the industry knowledge, just that the natural ability to tell stories exists and works in society even when separate of those things.

    When I was in the equivalent of elementary school, in my class we had this professor that would simply tell stories to the entire classroom just for the fun of it. There he was, standing before everyone and just talking... and all of us were like hypnotized by his spoken narrative, grasping and enjoying every word of it sometimes for an hour or more.

    The stories were short and simple, and yet that man told them in such a natural way that they were irresistible.

    I still remember some of those supernatural horror and magical adventures that he told to my class. Sadly, the fun ended when one of my classmates (we never knew who exactly) started to suffer severe nightmares thanks to those stories! Well obviously the parents complained to the school, and the professor was not allowed to tell any other story to us.

    We all begged for him to tell us more stories or to at least repeat the old ones, but the school would not allow it anymore.
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  8. bdcharles

    bdcharles Minstrel

    I wouldn't say I hate them but they leave me a little cold, mostly because I think someone is about to drop some fairly world-shattering knowledge on me, only to find it's the standard crop of tried-and-tested pointers that, even in my relative inexperience, I have already come across, such that after a few such articles I find myself craving the quiet voice of my muse. Having said that, I retweeted one of K.M.Weiland's earlier today ("The 5 Secrets of Good Storytelling") so I must like something in them. It had the word "baubles" in it so that is probably what snared me. I think it just reminded me of what I suspected or had forgotten. Of course, it's a bit of a clickbait misnomer calling then "Secrets" because they're all over the internet and in the public domain, but hey-ho. They might work for others but in general I agree that the whole business, for me, must be inspiration-driven.
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  9. Russ

    Russ Istar

    I am not the slightest bit annoyed when people publish "how to" story advice, rather I am grateful for most of it.

    Let me make myself clear on a couple of things before I tackle some of the thoughts expressed in this thread. Industry knowledge has no impact on simply good storytelling, it may impact how you choose to tell your story but for the purposes of this discussion, I think it can be safely but aside.

    But storytelling is a craft, and there are techniques that can be used to do it better or achieve certain goals. Whether or not there are "infinite" techniques or ways of achieving story goals is I think debatable but not the point here. Certainly the set of story telling techniques that can be used is very, very large, so large that it could never be covered by one blog or even one book or perhaps even many books.

    But the suggestion that there was a mythical time, before the written word that there were no storytelling rules (as opposed to writing rules, I fully concede there were no writing rules before there was the written world) is probably untrue.

    I have a good friend who has a masters in storytelling. He spent years studying how pre-literate people tell stories and how that functioned in both ancient civilizations, (where we can tell) and modern non or pre-literate cultures. The fact is those peoples had lots and lots of story telling rules and in fact they were probably more restrictive than our modern writing rules by a long shot. The evidence is that stories were handed down orally, with remarkable accuracy, to be told in certain ways with certain gestures and certain intonations at certain times in a very defined and understood way. Audiences would often be disappointed if the story was not delivered in the expected way. And many of those stories were handed down quite precisely over multiple generations. They were taught by mentors who taught story telling technique to their students the same way that someone doing a writers blog or writing a book is doing now. The idea that we believe that sometime in history there was a time when people did not teach or help other people learn to be a good storyteller is a myth or perhaps more accurately a fantasy.

    Even in the earliest literature cultures that we have a lot of material from show that they taught storytelling or communications technique. Cicero, thousands of years ago gave advice on the use of voice and gestures etc on how to sway your audience. Experienced people teaching less experienced people how to do something seems to be very much part of the human condition. Getting annoyed about it is just plain odd.

    Books on writing are simply larger, and more expensive, exercises in the same thing. I wonder if the OP gets equally annoyed by books on how to write, such as King's, or Morrell's. Even Tolkien gave writing advice, perhaps he should have simply shut up to allow others to properly access their own universal truth of storytelling unencumbered by his thoughts on the matter.

    One of the things that makes humans successful is the ability to learn from previous generations, it seems remarkably unwise to have to derive everything from first principles again. Even talent (and that is a different discussion) can be coached by experienced people to achieve more, and that works for writing as well. None of Usain Bolt's coaches were a faster runner than he was, but they helped make him better nonetheless. Why on earth would someone forgoe, eschew or even get annoyed at the chance to learn from someone who might actually be good at what they are doing or even just want to help you out? It's not like these blog or book authors are dropping into your living room and yelling their advice into your ear against your will. If you don't want to seek out and read articles that may help you, don't.

    Even Sheilawiz's amazing storytelling professor had to learn to tell stories to some degree. He learned the language, and it is likely over the years that he observed his audience reactions and adjusted his storytelling accordingly. Whether he did this consciously or unconsciously is an open question, but use of language effectively is a learned skill. Many in the arts like to ignore science but there is a ton of good science on the psychology of entertaining people, just ask Donald Maass.

    The fact that it is not conversational is just a practical reality. I would love to sit down with Moorcock, or Mieville or Iles, or many other great modern storey tellers and have long conversations with them about how to write effectively or how to strengthen my weakness, but that is just not practical (most of the time, I do have many friends who are professional writers who are very generous with their time and expertise and I am grateful to have access to them). I have to be satisfied with blogs, articles and books and am grateful when they choose to share their hard won knowledge with me.

    And the really amazing thing about it is that it saves me time and I can be quite specific in what guidance I seek. So if I think my dialogue is strong, but am struggling with my pacing, I can look for good articles on pacing by people I respect. I don't have to read articles on dialogue by people I don't respect if I don't want to. I have access to the thoughts of writers on writing, that I will likely never get a chance to meet or talk to, and that is simply a gift. How one could get annoyed about that trend is simply beyond me.
    Penpilot, Nimue and Ankari like this.
  10. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Yeah pretty much. Certainly everyone is welcome to express their own thoughts and opinions. The OP merely expresses my personal beliefs and thoughts. I didn't write it to argue or even debate. More to hope someone out there understands my point of view and is sympathetic to it in a world where it seems like the vast majority don't.

    I would argue that all these things are subjective or not objectively necessary. Even grammar. I don't particularly feel like arguing it here though. I already know how most people here feel about my "nothing is necessary in storytelling" theory.
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  11. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    I agree with the general sentiment, but I do still place great value on advice. While some of my best ideas came about through simple, fun experimentation, it is often far easier and more immediately helpful to just ask for help and try out whatever advice you're given. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn't, but at the least it helps me move on with my actual writing which is always a great thing.
    Russ likes this.
  12. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Thanks Russ! Also a MA in Literature here, and I concede to this.

    Sorry guys, but "storytelling rules" have been around as long as storytelling. There was no "time before storytelling rules" sadly. Each culture did indeed have their own, very strict story telling rules, even in oral tradition, that separated them from other cultures and other forms of storytelling.

    Even later, in Roman theatre, the writers of the plays had to write to the audience. If a play was not well received their stage could be destroyed, or worse. Roman playwrights did not have the freedom to "tell a story any way they wanted." They had to impress the people, and the leader of the time, in order to be allowed to show their work. There was no "freedom of speech or expression." Everything was heavily censored.

    This continued even into Shakespeare's time. He had to write plays that the people and Queen Elizabeth would approve of or he would be unemployed. These plays absolutely HAD to follow very struct structural rules. "As You Like It" is a title for the audience. It was Shakespeare's way of advertising that the play was exactly as the audience liked a play to be, with the style of characters they liked and the structure they liked.

    Storytelling rules have been around since the beginning of storytelling. They have changed for each culture and each generation, but they have always been there.
    Russ likes this.
  13. bdcharles

    bdcharles Minstrel

    I often wonder about the person who came up with the story first, as opposed to retelling it. They would presumably have had to get the feel for how best to make it come alive. Perhaps alot of the techniques would have been second nature to them? Imagine how many stories were lost simply because the early people that tried to pass them on were not good orators. I suppose it depends where in one's "communications journey" one is.
  14. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    Not a literature master here, but I doubt that there was a "first" person to tell stories. More than likely storytelling simply progressed from "This happened" to "This is what happened earlier" to "This is what someone did" gradually.
  15. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I really want to give a concrete example of this, so it doesn't sound so vague.

    So my local First Nations group is called the Sto:Lo nation. They have a traditional oral storytelling method with specific rules. They come into classrooms and discuss with students their storytelling traditions. Here are two of those rules:

    1) Know your audience. Stop:lo storytellers NEVER choose what story they are going to tell before they meet the audience. They want to gauge the audience first to see what sort of story the audience would appreciate. This is just good storytelling advice in general IMO. They do not tell stories purely for themselves. They understand their job is to entertain or teach an audience.

    2) Don't tell them everything. Keep them wondering. Sto:Lo stories tend to be quite cryptic. They will never explicitly "Say" the moral of the story. This leaves the listener with a sort of curiosity by the end. A sort of itch that can't be scratched. They know the story was. meaningful. But how? It leaves you perplexed and unsettled on purpose. This is to also "create community" so people can engage and discuss the meaning of the story.

    There are many more, but oral storytelling tradition is sacred to these people, and the storytelling rules are passed on from grandfather to grandchild in a very symbolic way. However, it is important to them that the storytelling rules DO NOT CHANGE. That they stay explicitly sto:Lo so you could know the difference between a sto:lo story and a Metis story. It would be considered disrespectful for a sto:lo person to begin telling their traditional stories in a non-traditional way.
    Russ likes this.
  16. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Yeah, so I think about this a lot too. What I've come up with is that the very first story telling "rules" were simply just typical social behaviours.

    As infants we learn from our parents and our community how to "communicate" within that community.

    We learn the sort of unspoken "rules" of communication. We may think there are no rules to communication, but that is not true. There are a billion unspoken rules that we follow every day. One example I love to give is the "smile and the nod". When we meet people on the street, even strangers, and we pass by them, polite communication is to make brief eye contact, smile, and nod. You may add in a "good morning" or a "hello" if you like. That is a very simple communication rule that we have learned.

    When I look at kids tell stories (basic ones, like what they did at school that day) it always follows a common pattern. We can understand the gist of the story because they are learning the rules of communication and how to be understood.

    My daughter has autism and so has not learned those "rules" of communication.

    So I believe the first stories still followed basic rules of communication. Those who really had a firm grasp on those rules were simply "better" storytellers because they were better communicators.
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator


    Hate to post and run, but just a few quick sentences re: subjective versus objective.

    I think story structure, or at least whether a structure is good, can be subjective. The same with whether to show or tell, how much dialogue to use, whether a POV or tense is effective, etc.

    As for grammar always being objective in writing, don’t tell that to James Joyce or E. E. Cummings
  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Penpilot was talking about how the "how to" advice is great for early writers. Not James Joyce of E.E. Cummings. He did say that eventually you learn what to use and when to use it and when to lose it.

    Most of us aren't James Joyce.
    Penpilot likes this.
  19. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I want to interject here because I think all of you are wrong. :whistle::cool::smug::inpain::blackeye::bigtears:

    Did anyone here watch the show Smash several years ago? It was about a production of a Broadway musical based on Marilyn Monroe. That's not important. But in one episode, deciding between the two possibilities for playing Marilyn, one of the characters said the following line:

    "She's spent too much time in the choir."

    You see, in the choir you learn to hold back because you're not the center of attention on the stage. Your dances, your vocals, your "presence" - the choir teaches you to be very good at a very many things, but it doesn't teach you to be a star. It can hold you back.

    I view about 60% of the writing advice that I've seen as being in that category. It's not that the advice is wrong, but that it's for the choir. If you want to succeed you have to let it loose, whatever "it" you have. Throw yourself into your prose and your story and don't hold back.

    Don't get me wrong. Show, don't tell, or whatever else. But first you need to find yourself in your writing, you need to find that "it" that you're trying to channel. And then use the rules to chisel off the rough excess and highlight the big presence that your storytelling has.

    Hold down the parts of your story that are the choir, but first find your star so that you can figure out how to help it shine.
    Guy and Chessie2 like this.
  20. Russ

    Russ Istar

    It is interesting when people try to use the exceptions to disprove a rule. It's like saying that because some people have driven safely way over the speed limit, that the speed limit does not exist. Grammar, like speed limits, are a useful social construct, not a law of physics.

    Some people are extremely unique or original and confident in their originality and that is awesome. I suspect however that Joyce and Cummings know the rules of grammar are making a conscious choice to vary from them. They took risks, hopefully in an informed and educated fashion.

    However if you are very confident in your dialogue, or your grammar, even if it varies from the rules, than you really aren't going to go looking for articles on how to write better dialogue or grammar. You are going to get on your horse and do your cool original thing.

    But for the person who is struggling with an issue, or a technique, or lack confident or strong feelings in those areas, writing advise can be remarkably valuable and even avocation or career saving.

    In sports there are a ton of similar examples. John McEnroe had this crazy ass almost contortionist service motion. It was amazing and effective. And it was unique. Most pros who tried to do a serve that same way couldn't do it, let alone recreational players.

    But if a pro went to a coach and said, I have a problem with my serve help me fix it, no rational coach would ever say "Let's do it the way McEnroe did." That would be destructive. (as an aside his unique service motion led to significant back problems for John but that really is a terrible digression...)

    So if someone was struggling with grammar you sure wouldn't say "let's teach you to do it the way Joyce did it."

    The fact that successful writers who vary from normal grammar like Joyce or Cummings are so rare, proves that there is a significant, almost unanimous, consensus on what proper and effective grammar is. They really are the exceptions that prove the rule.
    Hallen and Heliotrope like this.
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