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Monday, October 27, 2008


The dieting model of writing

When people know you're a writer, they often ask for advice on how to write. Almost as often, they don't believe the advice you give.

The trouble is this: answers to questions about writing are, on the whole, simple. How do you come up with story ideas? Well, you think of a bunch of ideas and write the one that seems best to you. How do you write good characters? Well, you think about how people act and try to make your characters act like people. How do you find the discipline to write? Well, you sit your backside down at a desk and turn on the computer.

But give an answer like this, and generally the question gets repeated. It goes more or less like this:

Q: How do you write good dialogue?
A: Well, you think about how people actually talk, and then try to have your characters talk like that.
Q: Yes, but how do you do it?
A: Er ... Well, you think of what your character needs to say, ask yourself how someone would say it, and then write that down.
Q: I know, but how do you make it sound convincing?
A: Well ... you just, you know, try to make it sound convincing. You just, um ... I want to go home...

Thinking about this, it reminds me of nothing so much as someone asking for diet tips. A while ago, I was being measured for a bra, and found that my ribcage measurement was an inch smaller than I'd thought.

'I guess the diet's working,' I remarked.

'Oh,' said the fitting woman, brightening up, 'which one did you use?'

I thought for a minute. 'You don't eat much and you don't put butter on it,' I said.

She gave me a somewhat disappointed look. She had, I think, been expecting me to name a particular diet plan, recommend a book or quote something out of a magazine. My answer was not what she'd been hoping for.

Requests for advice can be a lot like that. Nobody wants to hear you lost weight by eating less and/or exercising more; it may be the only thing that works, but there's always a hope that somehow there might be an alternative answer, some secret method that doesn't going hungry or working out. There ought to be more to it than that.

Similarly, some people keep hoping that, if they ask enough questions or read enough how-to-write books, they'll eventually hit a magic formula that doesn't involve the answer 'You sit down and write.' Because writing is a less commonly discussed phenomenon than dieting, there's even more of a sense that there must be some guilt secret tucked away somewhere. But if there is, I don't know it, and neither does anyone else I know, and I manage to get some writing done anyway.

To someone hoping for an Atkins writing method, this sounds like bad news, but actually it isn't. As long as you're holding on to the belief that there's a secret, then not knowing it is tremendously discouraging. It separates the world into those in the know and those out of it, and as long as you're out of it, there's no point trying. Once you realise that there is no secret, not knowing how it's done is no obstacle to doing it.

This rather reminds me of a story my brother-in-law told. He's a writer of some repute and he's been steadily losing weight for some time. He was at a convention and a fan approached him, remarked that he'd noticed that Peter (my brother-in-law) had lost weight and wanted to know how he'd done it, because the fan desperately wanted to lose weight as well.

"I'll do anything!" he declared.

"I ate less and started exercising," Peter replied.

"I'll do anything but that . . . "
As usual, Ogden Nash had a word for it: It's velleity
Once you realise that there is no secret, not knowing how it's done is no obstacle to doing it.

I disagree. I disagree very strongly. You can write. I cannot. As it stands that is the way of the world. However, if I thought there was a technique, a knack, a methodology, then I would have a way into doing what you can do. But the fact that it is just something you do, that puts it beyond my reach.
That's not exactly what I mean. What I mean is this: people can write to the best of their ability, and with the best will in the world that ability varies. But that ability will only come into play if people actually sit down and write - and it often improves with practice. So someone who keeps putting off trying to write because they're waiting for some secret method to be revealed won't develop their abilities, or indeed get anything done. That's what I mean: there may be other obstacles to writing, like basic illiteracy, but not having a magic method isn't one of them.

(Verification word today: groundat)
I think the thing is, people who keep asking and asking about something you thought you'd explained probably often don't have the ability in the first place. I know a man, very nice guy, who often asks me to read over his stuff, which is uniformly awful, and we tend to have conversations that go sort of like this:

Me: You need to make that paragraph more dramatic and less descriptive.
Him: Okay. How do I do that?
Me: Well, you, uh, you take out some of the description and put in more drama.
Him: How do I put in more drama?
Me: Ahhh...

And so on. I think maybe the people who do this to you are having the same problem: that is to say, they can't actually write, they don't have a feel for the words or for how a story should be structured, and they think that somehow, if they get a real, proper writer to explain how the "trick" works, they too could do it just the same way.

My verification word is "adrispi", which is a form of headgear much worn by the Catalan people.
Lets imagine that you had a burning desire to be able to do calculus. I could teach you do that, because there is a very definite technique involved. If you sat down and followed my technique carefully enough and with sufficient accuracy, then you would be able to do calculus. Now, maybe you would not be interested enough to do it, but you would be able to IF you wanted to. The same would apply, in theory, to theoretical physics up to the undergraduate level.
I think you're overestimating me, Donalbain! A friend of mine did once try to explain calculus, and it made my head hurt; it wasn't that I couldn't understand each individual bit, but that, by the time I'd understood one thing, I'd forgotten or confused all the preceding ones. Understanding is one thing, but holding that understanding in your head is another, and trying to hold on to advanced mathematical or scientific explanations is about as easy for me as holding water in my hands: I can do it for a bit, but it always seeps out before I can do anything useful with it.

(Word: deboa. A lesser-known member of the marsupial family.)
Frankly, I think that is because your friend did not explain it very well. I am firmly of the belief (backed up with evidence) that anyone who puts in the effort can do what I described above. Now, for some the effort may be more than they are interested in (brain hurt, for example) but they CAN do it.
I disagree, anon. I think you were being supremely unhelpful to your friend. It is possible to explain how to add more drama. There are certain kinds of sentences, or ways of phrasing things, that are more dramatic than others and if you're an experienced writer then you can think of patterns that exist in dramatic statements (or contemplative statements, or whatever) and deduce that maybe those patterns have something to do with what makes them dramatic, and then describe those patterns to someone else. I agree that there aren't many more ways to say "take out some of the description," but you can maybe talk about what kind of description is essential and what kind is only used if you think you're Charles Dickens. Talk about the difference between evocative description and literal description.

I'm not saying that you had some sort of obligation to help your friend, or that all the teaching in the world will turn a bad writer into a good writer, but it is possible to be considerably more helpful than you described.
This could be an interesting discussion, but let's stay friendly and lay off phrases like 'supremely unhelpful', yes?
Many years ago, a coworker learned I acted in local theater and asked "So how do you act?" Since I find this as odd a question as "How do you walk?" I had nothing much to say.--Fraser
I dunno. When I was younger, I had all sorts of people ask me "How do you draw like that?" and I would always answer the not-deliberately-but-still-supremely-unhelpful "Well, I look at things and I draw what I see."

As I grew older, I eventually realized that there were, not "tricks", but definite "ways of seeing" that *helped* me draw. Automatically breaking down complex objects into collections of simpler shapes. Blocking out masses of light and shadow. Checking proportions against each other. That sort of thing.

Now, nobody "taught" me how to see things that way. And that isn't all there is to drawing, by a long shot. But the point is, those techniques CAN be taught, in a way to make anyone able to draw *better*, if not necessarily *well.*

I am NOT a natural writer, the way I am with drawing. So I do what I can (including reading "supremely helpful" blogs like this) to learn the techniques that can make me write BETTER. But like getting to Carnegie Hall, to write WELL takes both streets: natural talent, and "practice, practice, practice."

Today's word verification: "mishbo", which is what I say to my sweet little puppy while squunching her ears, who's a good little doggie now, hmm?
I'm a physics grad student and a wannabe writer (I've been a wannabe writer longer than I've been a wannabe physicist.) Now I'm not exactly a success in either field, but I think I've got a shot. And I think both are equally learnable. There was a time when I scored badly on standardized math tests and got C's in algebra. What it took was really getting interested in the material. I think when explanations slide in one ear and out the other, it's a sign that you don't really care. Maybe you care about the grade, but you don't care about what happens to sin(x)/x when x=0. Or would be writers may care more about seeing their name in print than they do about whether Jane would really suscept Jim of murder on such flimsy evidence.

Incidentally, calculus is not just an algorithim. Doing integrals, in particular, often takes a lot of creativity. You usually have to come up with some kind of clever substitution to make the problem look like a problem you know how to do, and there's no guarentee it's going to work. Lots of integrals simply don't give analytical expressions, and the best you can do is to write a computer program to give you an output number for a specific set of input numbers by brute force. The idea that all math is as mechanical as arithmetic is what makes people see it as boring, so that explanations slide out their ears. Real math is when you don't know if the problem has a solution or not.

My word verification today is 'lushible', which really had to be shared. I think it describes the attractiveness that people get after you've consumed lots of alcohol.

You know what? I'd like to propose an experiment. Donalbain, you insist that I could learn something about mathematics despite my professed lack of talent, while you you couldn't learn to write. I think of mathematics as a talent, just like writing, and suspect that I couldn't really learn it past a certain point. So, here's what I suggest: you present me with some kind of maths problem, explain to me how to solve it, and see if I can get it right based on your explanation. Meanwhile, you write a six word short story; I'll give you some pointers for things you might want to think about, and you come up with something. We report how difficult we found our respective experiments.

Sound good? And indeed, anyone else want to try something similar?
As one of the posters noted, I think desire plays a part: Understanding and learning about sports is certainly something I have the intellect to do, but any effort to do so just makes my mind glaze over. -- Fraser
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