What Topics Would a Writer Study?

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polymath
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What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by polymath » March 26th, 2010, 6:53 pm

I'm curious what writing topics beginning, intermediate, or advanced writers would like to see discussed in an all-in-one how-to fundamentals handbook. A lexicon. An encylopedic manual.

Plot? Character? Setting? Discourse? And so on.
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Nathan Bransford
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by Nathan Bransford » March 26th, 2010, 9:38 pm

Wow, interesting question. I think for beginners it's so important to understand the Aristotelian arc - to understand that stories don't just happen at random, but there is an arc and order that leads to a climax. In the middle you learn things like pacing and how to keep multiple plates spinning throughout the plot, and at the end you learn polish and subtlety and how to spot your tics and proclivities.

There are so many ways to tackle the writing process though, and luckily there are so many different approaches in the writing guides alone.

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polymath
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by polymath » March 27th, 2010, 10:58 am

Thanks, Mr. Bransford.

I take a crossfire approach to most things, except people. I don't like getting no for an answer from inanimate objects or impenetrable topics. I get enough no from people. I study things from every angle, top down, bottom up, and sideways from every direction. I'm well-versed in Aristotle's Arc, Freytag's Pyramid, and a gamut of other writing topics. I used to ask what's next but now ask what's left. Audience rapport came along when I despaired of finding new areas for study, rapport last but of first importance. I expect there's more to learn, but I've got a fairly complete writing tool kit now.

Aristotle saw plot as a linear train of causation. He alludes to tension and rapport in Poetics. Freytag's The Technique of the Drama presents plot as a two-dimensional pyramidal object. He builds onto Aristotle's causation, incorporates a vertical component from tension's empathy and suspense counterparts, and alludes to rapport and antagonism. I see plot as a three-dimensional shape, a tetrahedron teetering on an edge. The third dimension represents the perpendicular forces of antagonism contributing to causation and tension. Antagonism's forces of change counterparts are purposes and complications. I've taught causation and tension. One dimension is tough enough to grasp. Two dimensions taxes the mind. Three dimensions is all but impossible to mentally grasp. I intuited the shape first then explored its ramifications.

My approach hasn't been an organized course of study, though, more like happazard happenstance chance occurrences. The reason why I ask the question of what topics would a writer study comes from a desire to send a comprehensive poetics manual back in time to my eleven-year-old self, when I received my first rejection letter and was looking for answers. I visualize a handbook detailing the fundamentals and a broad lexicon of writing terminology for further study packaged to fit into a back pants pocket and be a lifelong companion.

I guess writing study isn't a topic most writing audiences find much rapport with though. Just a mention of the Aristotlelian Arc tends to set eyeballs rattling around in their sockets. The narrative arch, rhetoric, voice, etc., topics of discussion readily cause cognitive dissonance stupors. My eleven-year-old self wouldn't have quit easily. By then I knew things that were beyond my comprehension would eventually yield to study and application. I liked to take my toys apart and see how they worked.
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by afamiliarletter » March 27th, 2010, 2:57 pm

Hi polymath, some deep stuff here! I'm new, so no makin' fun ;)
As you say, that would totally depend on the writer IMO. If I were a beginner (I am, actually), I'd want to learn about the storytelling aspect. As an intermediate I would focus on craft, and at an advanced stage I would hope to work on blending the two. Craft/storytelling might be a false dichotomy but it works for me.

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polymath
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by polymath » March 27th, 2010, 8:12 pm

Thanks, afamiliarletter,

Many poetics pundits reference three essential fundamentals of storytelling: craft, story, and voice. Craft as the mechanical style of writing, ABC's, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax stuff, etc. Story as the fundamentals of plot, character, setting, discourse, etc. And the ever elusive voice as the method of delivery, in other words, a part of discourse.

Story is one writing topic that can be detailed in a manual for beginning to advanced writers. Voice, appreciably less so, but areas of potent potential exist. It's kind of an intermediate to advanced topic for study, though, considering every writer has an emergent native natural narrative voice. Assuming most writers have a basic working knowledge of craft, it's truly a beginner's topic. But I believe you're well beyond that point.

At this stage of your poet's journey, what creative writing topic would you be most likely to seek out to study from a how-to handbook?
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by afamiliarletter » March 28th, 2010, 1:16 am

Well, thanks for the kind words! :)

I prefer what you say about craft, story and voice. Now I think about it, I think I lumped voice into 'craft' but that was a little hasty. It's not really craft. And I was aligning too much with my own perspective; I always felt I was better at language than at storytelling.

If I had the perfect handbook right now, it would teach me characterization and story structure. What about you?

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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by Nick » March 28th, 2010, 7:38 am

Nathan Bransford wrote:Wow, interesting question. I think for beginners it's so important to understand the Aristotelian arc - to understand that stories don't just happen at random, but there is an arc and order that leads to a climax.
To build off of this, I would say we should teach them that said arc need not necessarily be pronounced, though. I've found a lot of very good stories take a Ring Lardner approach; that is, "Act One: Send a man up a tree. Act Two: Throw rocks at him. Act Three: Bring him down." Still rising, climax, falling (no puns intended), but much less "big". One thing I found I often did up until a couple of years ago, and one thing I've found many of my writer friends do, is turn things into the Titanic, which often leads to the stories collapsing under their own weight. There is, of course, nothing wrong with massive stories, but it's a bit of a bad place to begin. Lardner seems like a decent place, imo. I mean Lardner wasn't actually advocating writing a story about a man who climbs a tree and has rocks thrown at him, but, at least for myself, it helps one be a bit mindful of keeping things simplistic and realistic (this is of course bendable to a point depending upon genre).

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polymath
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by polymath » March 28th, 2010, 10:01 am

You're welcome, afamiliarletter,

I study it all. Currently, I'm working on audience rapport, which if I had a chance at a do-over life is where I'd begin. My goal is stories so deeply immersing that readers feel fully involved in the participation mystique of secondary world characters and settings.

My writing lexicon now has thousands of writing-related terms. I'm able to bring them all to bear on target when prewriting, rewriting, and revising; however, my draft writing is still a free-writing creative process.

I look at character and see its influences on structure, setting, discourse, etc. For example, some basics of character include external traits and internal traits, flat or round, static or dynamic, favorable or unfavorable outcomes. Eight factors make for 256 possible choices right there. Add in a few more characteristics, young or old, strong or weak, rustic or sophisticated, poser or genuine, empathy-worthy or loathesome, hero or antihero, predominantly masculine or feminine traits, etc., and the possible choices become exponentially if not infinitely large.

Structure, I don't see a lot of variables in basic plot shape, some variations in timing, magnitude, and where the benchmark points fall, but every fully-realized story has the same basic shape of what I've reimagined is the first story ever told.
------
Nick,

Teaching writing in primary and secondary schools tends to be in imperative direct address, Tertiary education tends toward implied indirect address. Intriguing how teaching voice changes after an arbitrarily assigned age, noteably when institutional principles assume students have a capacity to learn to think critically and consciously for themselves. Yet that's one of the most relevant, unstated purposes of writing, reading, and literature study. The weight shifts heavily toward allowing free creative rein in early adulthood. I'm frequently amused when any given individual wants guidance, demands to be told what to do, then turns around and replies, I don't tell want to be told what to do, to think, to create, I'm not a child anymore. What a tangled web we weave when we practice to conceive.
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by Mira » March 28th, 2010, 2:05 pm

This is interesting!

I like what people had to say - lots of food for thought.

I think my approach would be (and I say this as someone who is on the cusp of beginning/intermediate)......

Well, actually, I liked what Nathan said.

The only difference I would say is for the beginning writer: Just get them writing. Praise everything they are doing right, and reinforce it. In a manual, I'd be upfront about that. Write, write, write and don't worry about it.

for the Intermediate, I'd bring in craft, story arc, pacing, common errors.

This brings up an interesting question for me. How would you define the difference between the three types of writers? Actually, if you answer that question, than how to target each one in a manual may become clear.....just a thought.

If you're writing a manual - good luck with it!

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polymath
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by polymath » March 28th, 2010, 3:30 pm

Thank you, Mira.

Assuming that all literate writers' mechanical craft skills are more or less equal, I'd not include that writing area more than as an aside. Such is not the case however. In novels published before the emergence of desktop publishing I've noted on average four nondiscretionary issues per novel. Afterward, the average is more like a dozen, and sadly, escalating. The main faults are inappropiate punctuation, blantanly wrong or missing words, especially article words, and other patently nondiscretionary editorial oversights. From the convenience of digital manuscript submission typesetting for publication, editorial oversight is fast becoming an author's sole responsibility.

Beginning emerging authors tend to emulate the weaker and easer to learn methods of accomplished authors. They have an intuitive grasp of structure, but little or limited understanding of unity, magnitude, and theme. Audience rapport is almost entirely absent in many beginner's manuscripts. Narratve voice is emerging but mostly unsettled. Story inspirations are pretty much noteworthy across the brackets, just too often not fully realized for their most potent potentials.

Intermediates have a stronger grasp on structure, somewhat better understanding of unity, magnitude, and theme's contributions, and mostly lack in the audience rapport department. Their narrative voices are fully emergent, but often not as settled as might be advantageous.

Advanced emerging authors have all the requisites of story craft, story structure, and narrative voice well in hand. Though, again, audience rapport potential often isn't quite as fully-realized as might be advantageous, especially in openings and introductions. Their stories tend to take clever-darling mid story digressions that deviate markedly from a central storyline, unity issues that spoil rapport. They also sometimes have minor issues with an unsettled narrative voice. However, they're fully in on the secrets of effective creative writing and storytelling. Just the impulse to challenge readers' attention spans and comfort zones sometimes seems to overwhelm their emergent sensibilities.

I'm not planning a manual as of yet. There's credibility issues to overcome. How to accommodate needs of all walks of writers and authors in one convenient handbook is another. I've considered one for when I'm so widely known everyone will want one. Isn't that the thing to do? Balance creative writing publication with how-to advice publication? Yeah, pay it forward if for no other reason than as a name-branding marketing scheme. Anyway, my purpose behind the topic question is to learn how to better counsel struggling authors at one stage or another of skill without overwhelming their capacity to evaluate and process my developmental editing commentary. An effective indirect teaching voice. One thing I've learned is there's always room for improvement. I learn a lot by sharing.
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by Quill » March 28th, 2010, 3:54 pm

Books on writing are a funny genre.

For me, their value is tied to format as much as content. White space is important, as is friendliness. Writer's Digest books tend to be crowded, hence inaccessible. They drone on in small print. The best books on writing can be read in pieces, skipped around in, contain short examples, may have bulleted points, include summaries. One can delve or skim, according to one's need at any time. The subjects are easily referenced, info is not buried, does not require the patience of Job to divine. The best books are conversational rather than tutorial. They are personal and inspirational besides being data rich.

Three examples:

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass

Thanks But This Isn't For Us, by Jessica Page Morrell

On Writing, By Stephen King.

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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by polymath » March 28th, 2010, 4:32 pm

I completely agree, Quill, that dynamic layout and formating are essential for how-to handbooks.

Book design of textbooks and instruction manuals markedly differs from prose publication. More visually appealing ones incorporate all that you've recommended as well as illustrations, figures, tables, and logic trees, and appendices and indexes.

Freytag's 1863 Technique of the Drama is a densely packed text, as was common in the mid 19th century before wood pulp paper manufacture was introduced. My collectible Porter's 1862 organic chemistry textbook is also densely packed in nine-point type. Freytag has one illustration. Porter has many illustrations and figures making it more appealing to the eye and less daunting to the mind.

Text-accompanying Illustrated concepts for visual learning adds depth to learning processes. Aristotle's arc, Chekhov's three act structure, Freytag's pyramid, Siegel's stepped-scene ziggurat and antagonism fork, plot's tetrahedron shape, expanded Chatman's discourse interactions, creative and literary element and attribute trees, I've dozens of graphical depictions. I've been collecting them from my studies.
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by afamiliarletter » March 28th, 2010, 5:51 pm

Polymath, I'm just drinkin' your posts up. Much appreciated.

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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by Colonel Travis » March 28th, 2010, 6:30 pm

Polymath, I've been writing professionally for 20 years, so while some of what you'd offer would definitely appeal to me, other parts definitely would not. I'm not saying that because I'm being a smarty pants, or that I've reached a certain level of learning and refuse to go further. Neither are true and I hope they never will be. It's just that, like you, I've gone through a ton of material on various subjects - although, unlike you I don't collect it or study it comprehensively. I just find what works for me and stick with that. For example, I've got three excellent books (for me) on pure storytelling. But I had to rummage through about ten times that many to find the most helpful. So here are just a couple questions I'll throw out:

1.) How could your single volume, for example, replicate the sort of work that I did with storytelling books, but for a wide audience? My three (and it doesn't have to be three, it just turned out that way) are best suited for me. Someone else might think they're horrible.
2.) Have you thought about a series instead?

Good luck with this project - very cool that you're such a hardcore writing enthusiast.

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polymath
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Re: What Topics Would a Writer Study?

Post by polymath » March 28th, 2010, 7:56 pm

Colonel Travis,

I've asked those questions and then some. The only certain answer I have is that trying to be everything to everyone will fail. I'm inclined to further one goal, save emerging authors some of the frustrations of reinventing the wheel. I visualize a one-inch thick back pocket book or jacket pocket book with about half and half fundamentals and a comprehensive vocabulary style lexicon, and an appendix referring to other noteworthy writing tomes that tend to specialize in advanced discrete or seminal topics. Beyond that, I'm not sure about much else, other than I don't have the resources at present to pursue it anyway.
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