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Terry Bisson's Rules for Writing SFF short stories

Discussion in 'Writing Resources' started by AnneL, Apr 18, 2014.

  1. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Steerpike,

    You said:

    Though you didn't directly say that advice should be rejected due to the use of the word "rule," you do go through the trouble of calling out the issue that the word "rule" is misapplied.

    My response, imo, is certainly a reasonable continuation of your argument regarding semantics. Speaking of which, if that's not what you believe, then what exactly was your point in bringing up the word "rule?"

    Huh?

    Did you read this:

    How is that statement, a sentiment I've expressed numerous times in this thread, in any way indicative of "not questioning" rules?

    What I'm advocating is giving rules their due consideration. There is a valid reason for "no adverbs." If one understands that valid reason and decides to use an adverb any way, I have absolutely no problem with that. I'm simply advocating that one fully understand the reasoning before rejecting the advice.

    I'm not sure why in the world that position is in any way controversial.

    My recollection, and it's been a while since that discussion and I'm too lazy to look it up, is that my primary objection was based on the principle of responsibility. A beta reader can only give feedback from their experience and from where they are on the learning curve. No matter the source, it is the author's responsibility to evaluate the appropriateness of any comment.

    My recollection was that you wanted to place responsibility on the beta reader, not on the author.

    While a beta reader should do the best job they can, I hesitate to offer any advice like what you advocated to beta readers because I feel that it would tend to discourage the act of critiquing.

    Let's say that I decide to write a blog post to a generic newb telling them how to get started. I'd say that, in general, start by doing the following:

    1. Be clear in your writing.
    2. Show instead of Tell.
    3. Lots of Tension.

    I think that, if a newb can start with those three pieces of advice, it sets the foundation for getting their writing to a level where they can start getting productive feedback. I think that advice is incredibly helpful.

    What is the alternative advice that you'd offer?
     
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    If you're saying in general, then you're not setting forth a rule, are you? It doesn't look like we have any disagreement. I don't have any problem with advice being offered as a matter of personal opinion or (when the beta reader can be bothered) as a result of a reasoned analysis of a work. I simply pointed out that calling something is rule is inaccurate if you believe what we both seem to believe - that the advice can be considered and then used or discarded as the author sees fit.

    I'm not sure why you went to the trouble of creating a straw man to attack, but if in fact your view is in line with what I've just stated above, then we're on the same page after all ;)

     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 10, 2017
  3. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Steerpike,

    I'm glad we're on the same page.

    I really have no idea as to the straw man issue. It truly bothers me that advice would be ignored based on how it's presented instead of based on its content.
     
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    When you call something a rule, it is both content and presentation though, right? "Rule" has a definition, so it's not just a matter of presentation, it carries with it the meaning and definition of the word.

    If someone tells a new writer (or not-new writer) they have a "rule" for them to follow, the writer receiving the advice should ignore any portion of the advice that claims the advice constitutes a rule, but that doesn't mean they should discount the rest of it.

    If you tell someone "Here's a rule: never use adverbs." They should say "bollocks to your rule" but still be willing to look at their adverb usage to see if their work could stand improvement. If they have a critiquer who understands that the admonition against adverbs isn't an inviolate rule, but rather advice meant to counter a lot of bad adverb usage, then the critiquer might even provide reasoning as to why the adverbs aren't working for a writer. Which brings up another problem with people who tend to view these things as rules: if you think you're dealing with an absolute rule, then a rationale is never needed. You just need to say "cut all adverbs," or "show don't tell." It's the easy way out for the reviewer, because since they are reciting rules they don't actually have to think about what they're reading.
     
  5. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Current usage of the word "rule" on blogs and news sites is "Ten Rules for Managing Your Money" "Ten Rules for Winning the Affection of Your Crush" "Ten Rules for..."

    Am I seriously supposed to think, "Wow, if I want to win my crushes affection, I absolutely must..."?

    Given the environment of the internet and the usage of the word "rule" on it, I think it is the height of silliness to make the complaint you're making.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    This attitude doesn't astound me.
     
  7. Guy

    Guy Inkling

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    No, it's because I see a bunch of successful writers violating the rule, openly, flagrantly and frequently.
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2014
  8. Guy

    Guy Inkling

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    Indeed, suh.
     
  9. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    In my splatter-elf thesis (or the rules I posted on April Fool's) I suggested actually using more adverbs. The more adverbs the better. Who knows, maybe a couple of years from now, the style will be to use crap loads of adverbs all the time. Readers ultimately decide these things, not writers. If readers say, "I don't care about adverbs as long as it's a good story" then it doesn't really matter.

    I think observing what current successful and published writers that you like are doing (or writers who have styles that have survived time like Tolkien) is your best bet. Styles are developed better that way in my opinion. Rules can help supplement that, but aren't completely necessary.
     
    Last edited: May 1, 2014
  10. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I agree. It is far, FAR better to study actual works of fiction than to read lists of rules.
     
  11. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    This has been brought up before as well and I think it's true. I'm currently reading The Name of the Wind for our Reading Group here on Mythic Scribes. Rothfuss uses adverbs (meaning mostly "-ly" versions) now and again. Not once has it jerked me out of the story and I've said, "Wait, both Stephen King and Elmore Leonard said don't use adverbs!" While I admire both of those writers and have learned a lot from reading them, I don't tend to want to follow any one rule anymore. When I write an adverb or use passive voice I now say, "Is there a better way I could say this?" If the answer is yes, then I change it. If the answer is, maybe no, then I leave it.

    My feeling is that if you want your writing to come out a certain way, read a lot and write a lot. Even without reading any rules, you'll start to see things take shape. The dialogue may become more natural, the characters more real. Words are just words. Story supersedes words. If the story is awesome, minor issues are going to fade in the background (hopefully).
     
  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    So, Guy, what's your takeaway from that?

    One author says not to do something; another author effectively does what the other author said not to. Is your reaction:

    A) Well, the practice is different from the advice, so I should completely ignore the advice and use all the adverbs that I want.

    B) Try to develop an understanding of why adverb usage is considered suboptimal so that you will gain an understanding of when you can effectively use them.

    As far as I can tell, your answer is A, I feel that answering A limits/slows development of writing skill. It does absolutely nothing to move you along the learning curve.

    B, on the other hand, gives you additional knowledge that you can use. This answer does move you along the learning curve.

    It's the attitude of dismissing advice without trying to consider why the advice was given that I find so maddening.
     
  13. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I read a lot. I study works I love. I like reading rule lists. They're all part of my education.

    What I've come to understand regarding rule lists is they pertain to that author alone. There may be something in there I want to practice. If I like the result, it goes in my toolbox. If not, I forget about it.

    These are "Terry Bisson's Rules for Writing". Just his, for his art. They aren't "Terry Bisson's Rules of Writing for all Authors".

    It doesn't make sense to approach an author's personal rule list as if they're trying to force their vision upon each of us. If that is indeed the case however, then I completely agree with the dissent. More often though, I notice complaints around rule lists where people only "think" rules are being forced upon them.

    Look at the last two on this list:
    59. Ignore these rules at your peril.
    60. Peril is the SF short story writer's accomplice, adversary, and friend.

    It's obvious to me he's having a bit if fun by saying "Follow these rules for creating a great short story. If you don't follow them all, you're doing exactly what you need to do."
     
    Last edited: May 1, 2014
  14. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    This thread is called "Terry Bisson's Rules for Writing SFF short stories." But Terry Bisson's actually blog post is called "60 Rules for Short SF (and Fantasy)" and the introductory paragraph says "Here are the rules for the SF (or Fantasy) short story". Not "here are the rules I hold myself to" or "here are the rules that I find work for me". The rules.

    That's what I object to.
     
    Guy likes this.
  15. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Read the edited add-on to my post. The last two "rules".

    Do you still think he believes you need to adhere to what he does to write a great short story?

    I totally understand rebelling against someone who's trying to force their will upon your vision. That's just not the case here & it's often not the case in lists fashioned by famous authors.

    When we see posts like "Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing", it's delivered with the possessive, as in "belonging to Elmore Leonard", yet people still act as if his vision is being forced upon them. It's not. Only you can do that.

    Where we do see the absolutist mentality where people say "Do this, not that", is more often in the camp of aspiring authors & part-time bloggers, or where people rework the personal writing rules of a more successful author. In those cases, I understand the contempt.

    Only the Sith deal in absolutes.
     
  16. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    As I think I've made clear in many of my posts on this subject, my objection isn't about what an author means when he writes up a list of rules as much as it is about what he says. Because unless he says "these rules are just my personal rules and you should take them or leave them as they work for you" or some such there are a lot of beginning writers who will take them for real rules that shouldn't be broken.

    I feel somewhat protective of those poor, ignorant writers because I used to hang around a lot of their blogs once and liked a lot of them, but when it came to learning the writing craft, many were all too eager to jump on all the rules as if they were life preservers that would float them right to the Big Pubs' doors. Now you can sit back and say "well, they should know better" and that may be true, but the fact is that too many of them don't. And if a writer's goal in writing such lists of rules and advice is to help other, newer writers then they really need to be more clear about the context of the "rules" they put forth. (I think, for example, that fantasy writer Patricia Wrede gives out fantastic advice and is always very clear that all writers and stories are different. I love to read her blog even when I don't necessarily agree with her.)

    As professional writers I expect them to mean what they say and say what they mean. I don't think that's too much to expect.
     
  17. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I get where you're coming from. Really, I do. Words are important. If we don't believe that, we shouldn't be writers.

    Still, I feel the stance of protecting other, less experienced, or fledgling writers, diminishes their intelligence. Most writers, in my opinion, are of above average intelligence. They have the ability to form their own determinations and will naturally come to their own choice of style over time. Much of that is done through emulation, one way or another. Beyond emulation, most grow through experimentation. At least that's been my experience.
     
  18. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    If that's all true, and I'm not saying it's not, what's the point of more experienced writers giving advice at all? What's the point of writing lists of rules? You can't emulate a list of rules. You emulate an author's actual creative work.
     
  19. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    What thing could another writer say to you that, despite their not agreeing to personally stop using adverbs, would cause you to believe that they are taking approach B? So far, it seems like you're interpreting everyone in this thread who's said they think adverbs can be useful as A), and refusing to accept any claim they make towards B).
     
  20. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Feo,

    Guy, to whom the post you quoted was directed, said this:

    By saying, "I see no reason not to use a part of speech," is he not clearly indicating that he does not understand why authors are telling him not to use this particular part of speech? If he clearly does not understand why not to use it and is throwing out the advice, is he not basically following B above?

    So, in direct answer to your question: I believe that Guy (again, the direct person to whom I directed the post) quite specifically spelled out that he was following approach B when it comes to adverb use.

    Is my interpretation of what he said unreasonable?

    EDIT: Note that had he said, "I understand that authors tell you not to use adverbs for these reasons (or, in lieu of actually listing anything, stated anything at all that led me to believe that he had such an understanding), but I feel differently," I would not have had a problem with it. Again, not sure why that stance is controversial...
     
    Last edited: May 1, 2014

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