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Language, craft, and the literal act and art of writing

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Jerry, Jan 20, 2020.

  1. Jerry

    Jerry Scribe

    Joyce Carol Oates said, as many a teacher and author have used this metaphor in some form or another; "Think of yourself as a photographer with a camera and you're looking through a lens. And when you have your magic camera - that's your writing. With the lens you see the subject, but the camera is your writing. That's your position. Your perspective. And that's what gives you your power. But in able to have to do this, you have to have the language and the craft. You have to have some place to put it. Know how to divide it up and how the sentences work."

    The last part is my struggle. As all writers, of course, we have a vision, perhaps not just the visuals, but some written words, sprawled on scraps of paper or mental notes. Mine are heavy on the mental notes. Heavy. I understand the craft, feel I have a strong grasp on language, form and structure, I trust. But it's that transformation out of the visual and magically, talently, into words. I do say literally, for as writer, this is what should be natural to us. I understand struggles, blocks, empty pages, and the like... but if I have a simple scene set up in my camera, my visual, the power to transform it into simple words escape me. Could it be perhaps a few writing classes could solve? I've taken a few from Writer's Digest (expensive) and while it helps a bit, the classes seem more like rushed prompts to be graded. I loved the idea of being forced to write as I thought that may be the answer, but all I wrote was forced and not readable, even in draft stages. Incoherent babble. As writer's... does it come easy to you? We all struggle, I know, sometimes harshly. But... what is out there that can open the flood gates? Most times... I can't write what I want to say. I just simply can't write it. I don't think I'm overthinking. Honestly... I know I do hear that damn editor cursing me, that I'm not following the rules of structure or form, and sometimes it does handcuff me till I realize and break away from it.

    I thought perhaps to just freewrite my WIP, very little in progress. Just write what is supposed to happen in the story. Whether it's just a few words or sentences, just to get me from point A to B, the beginning and end of a scene. I have, but that's where I'm at.

    I have a simple scene. I look at the page and struggle with how to write it as I visually see it. It won't come out. Simple words and simple actions I seem to not be able to put into words. What can a writer do to unpossess himself of such ridiculous demons. Help. I'm blank.
  2. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Poetry is poetry and storytelling is storytelling. To tell a story, you don't need to have fancy language. If fancy language is your thing and you have a way to use it in storytelling, sure, why not use it?
    But it's not mandatory. If fancy language is not your thing, there is little point in trying to force it. The result often sounds not pretty at all because you can tell that the writers are substituting ordinary words with fancy words, but they don't know how to use them.

    If you really want to have fancy language in your storytelling, I've heard practicing poetry recommended as good training.
    Jerry likes this.
  3. Malik

    Malik Auror

    It took millions of words and decades of failure before I found my voice. I even quit for five years out of frustration. I've been successful now by pretty much any metric you want to apply, and still, there are days when it doesn't come easy. It just comes easier than it used to. That's all you can ever hope for.

    Put words on the page even if it sucks. Even if they suck. Even if you suck. The more you write, the sooner you'll develop as a writer. It's a lifetime endeavor.
    Jerry likes this.
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I can't claim success, but I can write coherently, and for this I credit academic training. The craft of the historian is research, but the trade is writing, for the research is worthless unless it is communicated clearly and persuasively to someone else. Years of writing history as a student is where I learned. Practice isn't enough because practice merely means you're making the same unconscious mistakes over and over. Invaluable was writing thousands of words every semester, year after year, and having every essay critiqued by a professional. After all those years, I'd rate myself moderately competent, but no more than that. I've read the ones who are good, so this is not false modesty.

    One of the crucial things I learned is that grammar, punctuation, paragraphing, sentence structure, these things are not handcuffs, they are tools. All artists have tools at their disposal. Color theory for the painter. Music structure for the musician. Yes, there are those who utterly ignore these things, but they are few and they tend to be ... an acquired taste. They don't speak to a wide audience.

    Mastering the basics of language is, imo, vital. It's foundational. If you get deep into the language, then you can make art with it. Mastery of language is what gets those ideas out of your head and onto paper, and so into the heads of your readers.

    Numerous artists have said to study the masters first. This hit home for me when I saw Salvador Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross. It's a stunning work, but quite unlike the stuff most of us associate with him. It is absolutely classic in form. It could be a Renaissance painting. Dali showed in that painting what it means to master the basics.

    I was big into electronic music about twenty years ago. I had my main software and there were these wonderful things called plugins that could produce just about any sound, any effect you wanted. For some years I was like a kid at Christmas, dashing from one toy to the next. Gradually, though, I found that working with just one drum machine, just one 303, just a particular set of samples, led me down far more creative paths. Restriction as inspiration.

    I offer these examples to add resonance to the main point. The more one learns the basic tools of the craft, the better able one is to bring a vision to fruition, be it on canvas, with instruments and a mixer, or within the pages of a book.
    Svrtnsse and Malik like this.
  5. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    You're right in everything you say. My huge weaknesses is grammar, punctuation, sentence structure etc.All these years of school and teachers still can't seem to teach that accurately. I wasn't not taught, just taught wrong and never corrected so these mistakes became in-built in me. I never remember being taught the difference between "who's" and "whose" or when to use "too" instead of "to". I realize using a comma is actually a little more complicated than they made it sound at school. The advice we always got was: "Read it out loud and put a comma anywhere you'd take a natural breath." And I used to think "what about asthmatics or when I have cough? How can that work accurately? Shockingly, most humans don't breath correctly. They breath into the top of their chest and not from their abdomen, so not filling their lungs correctly." Singing lessons obviously paid off! But I do find it an on going learning curve and I love to learn it.

    I do have a story for you and anyone else who may be interested. So, all his life, my Dad was a lead guitarist and he was very good. In the 60's he used to play The Shadows numbers a lot and when he played Apache it sounded like the real thing - he was self taught. In the late 60's he was in a band that did quite well and they used to play in all the big clubs and bars in London. They mostly worked for two brothers called the Richardson's.

    Each time they played at their clubs a black van, with blacked out windows would collect them. They were instructed to not speak to anyone, just play and leave. When they would arrive these cronies with missing teeth and black eyes would unload their equipment for them. As the Richardson's started getting more comfortable with the band members they started having them stay after the club for cigars and drinks. So one might this guy who seemed to be a big part of their group, "mad" other wise known as "Frankie Fraser", requested a number the band did not do. My Dad said we don't do that number as it's a different style, we are a Shadows and Beetle Tribute act.

    My Dad said the room went silent. Everyone stared at him and the blood rush from their faces. The next time my Dad played, all these little wanna bee's were fussing around my Dad. Buying him drinks, pacts of cigarettes and guitars, polishing his shoes and guitar, packing up all his gear. He said they were like hand maids all night. He also noticed how his band mates and the brother's kept looking at each other and laughing. So on the way home in the van my Dad asked why everyone was grinning.
    Nick the drummer and my Dad's best mate said:
    "You do know who these blokes are, don't you."
    My Dad looks blank.
    Nick says: "The are The Richardson's brother's. They are big time gangsters. Mad is the one who tortures people for them and with James Moody kills people. Everyone, even members of the Kray are terrified of him because he's brutal and you can't say ni to him. You're lucky you didn't get a black eye."
    So the these these gang wanna bee's were hoovering around was because they thought, if my Dad had the balls to say no to "Mad" and for "Mad" to not doing anything, he must be the shit.

    So my Dad being himself, decided to never let on that he hadn't known who Frankie and the Brother's were. And adopted a gangster persona in the club. Frankie and the brother's found it hilarious and helped him with this persona. My Dad was a gangster. That story definitely helped me through my embarrassed by Dad stage as a teen!
    Svrtnsse likes this.
  6. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

    I think this is the part people forget when they point to people who successfully break "the rules". Almost all of the ones who do first learned the rules and how to apply them really well. Painters are a great example of this. Dali was an amazing painter, who decided to then break the rules. But he was an amazing painter first.

    As for the original question, try different things to see what works for you. We're all different. There's a few things that work for me:

    - Give myself a daily work-count. I got this from participating in NaNoWriMO (give it a try, it's fun and it forces you to keep going forward in your writing instead of worrying about what you've just written). Having a daily number to hit pushes me to keep writing. I strive for 4200 words per week. Which works out as 600 per day or 1000 for 4 days (and I get some time off ;) ). You don't necessarily need a high number. I would advise to start low and increase it if you find yourself hitting it consistently. But even just 300 words per day is still 90.000+ words per year, which is a nicely sized novel.
    - Just write. Like all other writers I sometimes run into a scene block and don't know how to describe a scene. For me the way to get past this (other then to write a sentence half a dozen times and deleting it again) is to just write the images in my head as literally as possible. I don't worry about fancy language or flow of the text. If I see a room I'll just go with: "He walked in to the room. A dining table stood to one side, next to a cold fireplace. Two people stood near the window on the other side of the room, deep in conversation."
    It's crude and won't win me any prizes, but it does get the story down on the page. And you can fix everything except for a blank page and all that. In the second draft of the scene above I could add the gun on the mantle of the fireplace if I need it to be there later. Or actually tell you what the two people near the window look like.
    - Look for conflict. I have a hard time writing a setting or describing a scene where very little is happening. It's just a drag for me and the words crawl out of me at a snails pace. So I write as little of that as possible. Action scenes on the other hand go very fast. And not necessarily a fight scene. But a scene where I know what the conflict for my protagonist is, where there's lots of tension, that sort of thing.
    - Start the scene later. This ties in to the above. Often when I have trouble writing it's because I started the scene too early. For example, in transitioning from the previous scene to the current one, my protagonist needs to move from point A to point B. Showing how my protagonist moves from A to B doesn't do it for me, I just can't write that (and I have a lot of respect for those who can). So instead I just summarize it in two sentences and the get on with the conflict.

    One thing that helped me to get on with it is Stephen Kings description of the two kinds of writers: put-inners and take-outers. Some writers naturally write flowery description of everything and find in their edit that they need to take a lot of stuff out. And put-inners are the reverse. They initially write too little description or detail and need to add that stuff in during a later edit. I've found that I'm more a put-inner. So I stopped worrying about writing not enough description during my first draft.
  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I don't know if I'm on-track or off-track to help you in this, but...

    I wonder if your problem is that you aren't, not really, visualizing it.

    If you are like me, then you'll usually have just one, maybe two key things in mind when beginning to write a scene—not the whole scene. So for instance, I might have in mind that my main character is going to fail utterly when trying to cast a spell in private, causing something tragic to happen. I become very focused on this failure and his reaction. That's the point, the whole raison d'être for that chapter! But my focus on this can be so strong that I myself fail to weave the spell that is the chapter, heh. In other words, I'm not really visualizing the whole thing. Sure, I have a lot of props—I know where it takes place, maybe even the weather, etc.—but if I'm being honest, all I care about is that point of my character's failure and his reaction to the horror he has just caused. When I sit down to write the chapter, suddenly I'm drawing a blank! I thought I'd visualized this, darn it!

    Going hand-in-hand with this is the editor inside my head. If I begin to write that chapter and just wing it, stringing things together because I have to reach that great point of my character's failure and reaction, the editor-critic inside me knows I'm just pretending, I'm faking it, I'm just smashing lots together before I reach that point, the raison d'être. None of the rest of the writing in the chapter matters much; my inner critic already knows this, and when I begin to think about the crap I've written, I know it too.

    The words don't come for all that other stuff, not easily, not naturally, not wonderfully, because my mind and interest are focused on only one or two things in that chapter. I don't care about the rest. But this is the problem. I should care.
  8. Samantha England

    Samantha England Scribe

    I've been writing for almost nine years now. I started when I was thirteen, the age at which I looked at my skill set and interests in order to actually come up with a career I would be happy doing. I love reading and writing, and so I decided to become a writer (note: my dad was not as ecstatic as I was about this decision, and this only eased once I found my love for editing). I can break down my development as a writer like this:

    13: Absolute newbie with loose papers that have words on them, but not a bad place to start.

    14-16: Lots of writing, exploring many story ideas, reading more books in the genre I want to write in (fantasy). A lot of dead stories from this era.

    17-18: Reading literary journals and magazines, discovered Mythic Scribes and lurked around reading articles. More writing and fewer dead stories. Fully developing my writing style and only improving.

    19-21: Self-published a novella and while it was no commercial success it boosted my confidence in that I could finish a story (barely over 11,000 words... but still a complete story!). I learned much from this experience. Really starting to nail down my writing process and world-building methods.

    20-21: Finished the first draft of a new novel that is presently going through its first revision (the focus on the story). Continuing to not only work to nail my process and style down, but also to increase my understanding of the publishing industry as well.

    I've heard in a few places that it takes ten years to write a book. This is true for only one book of mine, in particular, a story that has survived since the beginning of my 'writing career'. However, I believe it should be more along the lines of, "It takes ten years to write a book, and most of that is developing your style and method of writing." Writing is hard, takes work and practice, and once you've seen the light at the end of the tunnel you (hopefully) come out of it with wisdom and respect for the craft and it is a craft despite some of what I see in Barnes & Noble these days.

    Knowing what to write on that blank page is the first challenge. Starting is always a challenge, even with an outline that tells you what you put down for the beginning. Most of what it takes to overcome this, in my experience, is to build up the confidence to just go for it and write. Just write, it doesn't matter what it is or whether or not you have an outline, just write. What opens the floodgates for each writer is different. For me, it's a solid story premise and an equally solid outline. I am in love with every solid premise I come up with and I want, with all my heart, to tell that story.

    So I say just write. Don't worry about the nitty-gritty details and editing, just write, and I think you'll be surprised where it leads you.
  9. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

    I'm slightly wary about that advice. Since we're using one medium as a metaphor for another medium, the novels-as-movies metaphor runs the risk of being taken literary, so you end up trying to create a movie, only with words. You try to "visualize" a "scene", dutifully listing what the reader would see and hear if he were watching a movie instead of reading.

    To me, it feels more natural to think of my stories as dreamscapes, not movies. That's what my stories mostly feel like in my mind's eye. Also, a dream is a much deeper thing to aspire towards than a movie is.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I like to think of stories as stories. ;-)

    Audible throws a good-sized wrench into the works, though. Until now, while someone could read a book aloud to someone else, for the most part we authors could approach text as text. With Audible there's the possibility of the text as performance. I don't really know what to do with that, but there it sits.
  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Be careful of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, and too many clicking sounds (apostrophes in names, heh) or unpronounceable names?

    Not that these can't work well, but only that unintended cases might lead to unintended effects....
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2020
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I've been thinking that another of my hangups is the wide gulf between telling the story in straightforward language, simply, and using the more poetic (or literary) style. Heck, go another step or two in that last direction and set the endpoint there on purple prose.

    There's this huge gulf. The simple, straightforward language is...well, simple to write. If I'm doing it, I'm certainly not sweating the small stuff. But my inner editor-slash-anxious-wannabe sweats buckets. Sometimes, this sweating is offstage, and I can carry on. To a point. More often, the sweat might be figurative but it still burns my eyes.
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    My advice: don't sweat it.
    I'm not at all sure there's such a thing as straightforward language. What seems straightforward to one reader will strike another differently, and we've no way to tell. Except in the reviews. There's a huge range of styles among (successful) fantasy writers. There's an audience for your voice, too.
    Malik likes this.
  14. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I agree somewhat. I think maybe instead of calling it a gulf, I should have said a continuum. What happens if you can reasonably write in more than one style, even if not at first but with a little practice?

    "Your voice" is a kind of mythical thing, in my opinion. It is presented as an ideal, a natural part of you to be discovered, yours, something that emerges from your very being, even. Heh. But as you said, there's a performance aspect. Even if we approach the writing only as text—still, a performance aspect. Putting words on paper is a lot like stepping onto a stage—I hear that the world is a stage, also—and the performer can't help wondering about the performance he'll give. I.e., it's a conscious choice. And for most people, there are multiple choices available for this question.
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I would have agreed with you once. But then people--first in my critique group, but later from other quarters--told me I had a voice. I'm not at all sure I know what it is, but others assure me I have one, so there you go. I bet you've got one too. Have you checked in the other pocket?

    Can't buy the performance thing, though. A screenplay isn't a movie. A script isn't a play. And a reading of a book has at least an element of performance to it--breath, pace, pitch, emphasis, all that sort of thing.

    Anyway, I would encourage every writer to write the heck out of whatever they're writing. There was a time, not all that long ago, when a writer was well advised to study forms and imitate them--the sports writer, the columnist, pulps, Westerns--and not just genres but specifics tastes of individual editors. But those days are gone forever, over a long time ago. Imitation is still available as an exercise, but really the door is open to every path. Go purple if it suits ye. Or Hemingway the heck out of your prose if that's to your taste. These days there's a reader for every writer.
  16. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

    I think everyone has a voice, but not everyone has a distinct voice. And this last part is usually what people mean when they say someone has a voice. Voice is simply your style of writing, your choice of words, sentence length, whatever. It's the fingerprint of your writing, except that it changes and evolves. And one book will be slightly different from the next.

    If you're just starting then your voice will be all over the place and likely influenced by whatever you're reading at that time. Once you get some practice your voice can become more consistent I think. And in some cases it will become distinct and people will be able to pick out your writing even if you don't put your name on a work.

    Of course, there's others who specialize in writing in someone else's voice. If you can do that you can become a successful ghostwriter.
  17. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    I always read my books aloud during the editing phase. Works wonders for getting the rhythm right, and not only the dialogue.

    I'm forever smoothing syllables to chip the edges off my flow.
  18. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I'm not saying voice, of a sort, can't be identified, but only that a voice develops according to choices a person makes. I do think there's a great 3-part question:

    1. Does final author voice develop ultimately because an author acquiesces to certain requirements, personal limitations, expectations, etc.? (I.e., is the author voice something one "settles" on, a sort of happy medium—pun intended.)
    2. Or does final author voice develop through a series of choices as the author hones/perfects/develops a voice consciously through years of practice? (One does not settle simply because one thinks it's the best one can do but rather only after hitting a target in the bullseye.)
    3. Is the answer actually something between these first two? Perhaps it's so subconscious, many authors don't notice how their voices developed?

    We'll need to agree to disagree then. I've found that with language, everything is performance. A large number of people have moved past the toddler stage, when every utterance elicited desired or undesired responses from Mommy and Daddy and the toddler's choices took various routes in navigating this call-response landscape. But by "moving past" I mean it's been internalized, the conscious version reserved for "special occasions" (dealing with a policeman who has pulled you over, dealing with a grumpy child, etc.) or simply when trying to elicit any particular response. It's been so internalized, most people do it anyway, even when not thinking about it. For me, language is performance, and it makes no difference whether it is spoken or written. The words are so limited and limiting, thought always goes into it, even if it's subconscious routines that "determine" the output heh.

    But by saying "the door is open to every path" you are saying...there are so many choices, mmm?

    What metric does one choose for the choosing then?

    "Suits you," "if that's to your taste" —Ifs, and no tailor available. That said, a person must determine her own tastes. Do you read books written in a style that isn't your own style of writing, and do those suit you or ding your taste buds? Hmmm. ;) Here again though, we are back to voice-as-natural-indicator-of-intrinsic-being. I mean, taste buds. You're born that way? I think this is that "just write!" advice, in disguise, and I'm not sure it addresses the issue?

    Still, the "just write" advice, in forcing one to write as the solution to the dilemma, forces the choices—It doesn't eliminate the choices.
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2020
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    It's a slippery topic and not one on which I'm certain nor particularly clear. It's been my own experience that I'm not aware of my own voice--perhaps somewhat like we never sound to ourselves like we sound in a recording. Voice has been what others claim to hear.
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  20. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I have voice, and apparently it’s distinctive. The first time I knew that was when some lady who read a chapter of mine on some forum picked me out on another forum about 3 years later. Many years after that, I’ve refined things to the point that I know some of the habits in my writing because they’re intentional. I leave out determiners when I feel they aren’t needed, and I refine word choice while in edit to make sure I’m staying right where I want to be (at least as well as I can, I know I slip now and again). And then, there is some part of the voice I must assume I would never personally recognize because it’s just innate.

    There is analytical company that compares you writing with other authors in 4 categories, and one night I was bored, so spent the cash to see what it said. Joe Abercrombie and I share a lot of similar traits in 3 categories... like 97%+ match, but grammar is like 75%. The other two authors were similar. When I picked up one of Abercrombie’s books I could see the grammar difference right off, but of course, I don’t really know what the computer was saying was so different. I do know I bend grammar rules all the time, and in dialogue outright break them now and again.
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