Drowning in Theory, Starving for Application
Learning the art/skill/craft of writing can be a daunting process. It is easy to get lost in the study and forget about the application. Theory does have value, as long as it is tempered with application. With my immersion into the study of writing I have found some great resources for learning that I am going to share with you here and now.
There have been five courses that I really liked. Many of the more academic courses that are supposed to be about writing seem more about trying to guess, or simply invent, the theme of an old, popular book. These courses are not like that.
Four of the courses are from Masterclass.com. I think they have done an excellent job of letting these writers show you their process and thinking patterns.
The first one I took was from James Patterson. I wanted to see how the best selling author in the world does it. I found his process to be very interesting. He writes these extensive outlines, sometimes up to 50 pages, then has a co-author flesh the story out. He emphasizes keeping the story moving fast. I recently did a post on the first part of the Prologue of “Zoo.” I found it interesting in that I really liked half of the writing, and I don’t think the other half had to be there. I wonder what his outlines read like, those might be wonderful. Patterson really focuses on plot and hooks.
Aaron Sorkin is something like an evangelist for Aristotle’s “Poetics,” and I don’t disagree with him. I found it interesting that Sorkin warns how little of a writers time is spent on writing. He spends most of his time, by far, on research. I think it’s useful how he emphasized focusing on the basics to clarify things when you are writing: intention, obstacle, stakes, tactics.
You can feel the drive and ambition flowing from Shonda Rhimes. She had a lot of practical career advice. I find it ironic that she studied and loved “The West Wing,” which was written by Sorkin, and states that you are not a writer if you don’t write every day (which Sorkin does not). Rhimes is really focused on characters and how they drive the story.
David Mamet was my favorite out of the four. Just as a person I think he is an excellent storyteller with an interesting personal history. I really like his three questions: Who wants what? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now? Both of his children became professional writers, that seems like something important. I like how he breaks down some basic three plot structuring and shows how that works with “American Buffalo.”
The non-Masterclass class is by Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University. Sanderson does one class a year there, and it is great. I watched the whole thing on Youtube. From my perspective, Sanderson goes into everything. Because he is a fantasy writer himself he does do one whole session on magic and talks about setting quite a bit, but I find that interesting. It’s useful to see how he interacts with the class, and things come up that wouldn’t if it was not a live class. I was enthralled with this class while I was watching it.
Now . . . books! So many books. There are a lot of books about writing, and most of the ones I have looked at didn’t seem that great, but some were wonderful.
“Writing Popular Fiction” by Dean Koontz was very good. This is from the early 1970’s, and Koontz has changed his mind about a lot of things since then. The genre of gothic literature he talks about barely even exists now, but it’s still interesting. Koontz has an odd process of writing. He rewrites a page over and over until he likes it. This could be 5, 10, or 15 times, but he doesn’t go back and rewrite books. When I am reading books, especially ones I am studying, I read with a read pen. I underline and make marks concerning important points. There are a lot of red marks in this book. Koontz wrote this book like he knew everything there was to know about writing fiction, now he says that he was full of way too much hubris back then, but I like the way it comes across because it allows the book to be well structured. He does a good job of simplifying complex ideas. Let me randomly flip through the book and pick out a quote: “The best sub-plots are not grafted onto the main story, but arise naturally from the personal problems of the secondary protagonists, which we discussed earlier.”
“On Writing” by Stephen King is one of the most popular books on writing, and for good reason. Stephen King and James Patterson aren’t mirror images, but they are opposites in a lot of ways. King really lays out his process of writing. He starts with a situation and lets it grow. Sometimes it becomes a short story, sometimes a novel. He includes enough personal stories that this book is almost a memoir. He also includes advice about grammar, so it really does cover the gamut. Let’s flip through the book and find a good quote: “I should close this little sermonette with a word of warning — starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.”
“The Complete Book of Scriptwriting” by J. Michael Straczynski is from 1982. It includes an interesting opening about the history of film and television. I think that is the most interesting part. It also includes a section on radio drama, which may come back with the popularity of podcasting. He delves into formatting quite a bit as well, which looks like it hasn’t really changed in the last 30-some years.
“Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein has a lot of good information. It is a little odd that Stein’s claim to fame is that he has been an editor for popular writers, but he seems to have a little bit of disdain for commercial writing. Stein highly emphasizes characterization. Let’s hear a quote from the book: “On that line boredome — a loss of experience — belongs close to death. Successful writing immerses the reader in heightened experience — emotional, intellectual, or both — more rewarding than the life around him.”
Orson Scott Card has two books on writing, both are good, but “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy” is definitely the best. Even those he is focused on the one genre here, I think there is a lot of good insights for all writing. I looked at Card’s unique take on plot structures with the MICE Quotient in a previous post. I am not sure that specific piece is for me, but I like most of what Card says. Here is a quote from the book: “…the writer harvests the best and truest ideas he can, fits them together into a structure that makes sense to him, writes it with clarity, and trusts in his own natural voice and story-sense to bring forth all those marvelous things that critics look for. True symbols are as much a surprise to the author as to the reader; true style comes from the natural voice of the author, recorded in print. If you don’t write symbols and style, they happen anyway. But well-created worlds, effective structures, and clarity don’t just happen — they must be created consciously, and they can be learned.”
That quote from Card reminds me of Hemingway saying that “The Old Man and the Sea” isn’t symbolic. He didn’t put any symbols in, other people did. I read that quote in “Ernest Hemingway on Writing.” I didn’t think that book was that great though. I should note that I don’t like Hemingway’s writing style, I think he is interesting, just not his writing.
“Zen in the Art of Writing” is an interesting collection of essays by Ray Bradbury. I am still reading it, I like the style, but I don’t find it to have a ton of substance. It seems more motivational than anything else; kind of like “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. I like Pressfield’s subjects and style as well.
Kurt Vonnegut included some great advice on writing in the introduction to “Bagombo Snuff Box,” which is a collection of short stories. Apparently I like his style because I read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in one sitting riding an airplane across the US. I remember being pretty enthralled with it, but I don’t specifically remember much about the style. Anyway, in this introduction Vonnegut emphasizes writing for one specific reader. This is also where Vonnegut lays down his eight famous rules of writing. Immediately after that he gives an example of a great writer that breaks all of the rules except for number one, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” I like the other seven rules though too.
“The Art of Fiction” by Ayn Rand is an interesting read. Rand founded the philosophy of Objectivism and wrote fictional works to communicate her ideas, most notably: “Atlas Shrugged,” “The Fountainhead,” and “Anthem.” Rand always tried to be extremely logical, she always had a clear structure to her thinking, and it is no different with her fiction. Because of this she has very different views than most other writers in a few areas. The most notable difference is that she starts, and says that it is a necessity to start with, the theme. From a theme she starts to build a logical plot. “Atlas Shrugged” took her 12 years to write, because she was thinking it through so clearly. Here is a quote from the book: “The purpose of all art is the objectification of values. The fundamental motive of a writer — by the implication of the activity, whether he knows it consciously or not — is to objectify his values, his view of what is important in life. A man reads a novel for the same reason: to see a presentation of reality slanted according to a certain code of values (with which he may then agree or disagree.)”
“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is a memoir by Haruki Murakami has made it into my top three memoirs along with “Not Fade Away” by Peter Barton and “Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight. It was recommended as the only book on writing you ever need to read by the creator of the television series “Billions,” Brian Koppelman. I heard about it on one of James Altucher’s podcasts. Obviously, I enjoyed it. Koppelman also has some advice on writing. Instead of writing what you know, write what fascinates you. I like that idea as well.
C. S. Lewis and Tolkien were friends, they were both teachers at Oxford, and they were both in the same writing group. Both of them had books of essays published about writing. I thought I would like some of the information there, but it seems rather academic to me, more useful for analyzing writing rather than writing. At first this kind of surprised me, but on second thought it seems kind of inevitable.
I wanted to understand a little more about the romance genre, especially why people like it, so I read “Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women,” which is a collection of essays from romance writers on why the romance genre is appealing. I thought that was interesting. I understand it a lot better now, but the escapism combined with the emasculation of men still doesn’t particularly appeal to me.
“Poetics” by Aristotle is excellent. It just amazes how much he could know so long ago. Here is a short and important quote: “…the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.” Sorkin mentions that idea more than once in his course.
There are several books that are not specifically about writing, but I still find useful because they are about the human mind. “The Human Zoo” by Desmond Morris is about the human animal. “Living Control Systems” by William Powers is about Perceptual Control Theory, which is the best explanatory psychology that I have ever found. “The Origin of Consciousness Through the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes is very interesting. Lastly, “The Intent to Live” by Larry Moss is very good.
Desmond Morris was a zoologist that turned his attention on humans. Here is the type of great stuff you will find in his books: “There are, then, two basic kinds of exploration: panic exploration and security exploration. It is the same for the human animal. During the chaos and upheaval of war, a human community may be driven to inventiveness to surmount the disasters it faces. Alternatively, a successful, thriving community may be highly exploratory, striking out from its strong position of increased security. It is the community that is just managing to scrape along that will show little or no urge to explore.”
Larry Moss is a director and acting coach. He was the acting coach for my favorite public speaker, Bo Eason. A few years ago I flew from Michigan to Malibu, California to see Bo perform his one man play, and it was worth it. Moss talks so much about objectives, intentions, obstacles, and stakes that it is very useful for writing. Here is a quote: “…you are exploring the most interesting and provocative ways to reveal your character by the way they try to achieve their objectives.”
“The One Basic Plot” by Martin Turner is little-known, but very good. His main point is that the double reversal is the most satisfying plot and the key to the satisfactory endings of movies like “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Here is an example of what is to be found within: “You can write a tale full of conflict where the hero has to battle every kind of enemy on their way to achieving a quest, but unless there is some organising thread which explains (or would, if you revealed it) why all this fury is being unleashed on the hero, then it becomes merely a string of events, not a story.” I think that is a great insight and a concept I want to play with in application.
There are a few things that I think might be useful, but they might not. The idea of motivation-reaction units seems to have some merit, but I feel like it is off somewhere. I haven’t looked into it enough to tell where exactly. The basic idea is that you describe an external action, then an internal reaction, then the character action, then repeat.
Also in that category is Transactional Analysis from Eric Berne. It is an entire psychology focused on the odd little social games people play with each other. I read a few books on it years ago. It seems like it may be helpful, but I’m not sure if that is true.
I have watched a few interviews with George R. R. Martin. He is my favorite writing style, and I like his subjects. He had a few interesting things to say. Things like: write something that hurts you to write it, violence is one of the most important subject to explore in fiction, all characters are grey characters, break and reverse tropes and cliches, and the most important thing to write about is the heart in conflict with itself.
Last week I went to the art fair in Muskegon, Michigan. They had an author and publisher section and I picked up about 50 business cards. I talked to about that many people too, along with reading the backs of the books and a few paragraphs. It is interesting seeing so many people writing and publishing books. Some of the writing looked pretty good too. I estimate that about half of the people in the world, 3.75 billion, want to write a book. I liked talking to the other authors about genres, and styles, and other concerns. I see the appeal of author events.
Application has been my weak point as of late (the last 28 years). With all of this interaction and study I do have more mental models and frameworks to use, and that is important. Also, I have people to emulate, and some people to not emulate. Daniel Coyle, in his book “The Little Book of Talent,” talks about the two keys to repeatedly training world class performers. The first is what he calls ignition, it is having this image of someone else and saying “I could be them.” The second key is deep practice, reaching just slightly beyond your abilities while you are focused on improving. Repeat that reaching over and over again. My ignition is now stronger, just add deep practice.
I think there are two basic ways that I should be focusing on application more. One is analyzing the applied work of others. Rather than theory I can see the work in action. I have done this with a few things like the teaser of “Breaking Bad” and the first part of the prologue of “Zoo.” I learned a lot from how those are written, especially the bad aspects of “Zoo.” It may be that you can learn just as much from the bad writing as the good. A useful extension could be working on turning the bad writing into good writing.
The other aspect is creating, writing, doing; application. I have been thinking about a few of these mental models and some of my own frameworks have been developing. For a scene a character should always have a sensation, an intention, and an action. This should be all that you are writing, but there are a lot of aspects to these. Obviously you still need to have setting and conflict, but if the character is driving the story those will be there. Also, I think there is definitely a place for narration. The pilot for “Into the Badlands” opens with narration to set the context and I think that was wonderfully done. Sensation is really about describing the setting anyway. There are different ways to approach that. Action will be the meat and potatoes of most stories, whether that is mostly physical movements or dialogue. Intention is the one that has the most theoretical depth. The character has to know what the intention is, how they plan to do that, and there has to be a why. I think the why is the most important part.
Let me see if I can describe what fiction is all about in a fun way.
Fiction is about capturing the attention, the full attention, of the reader and pulling them into full immersion within the sensation of the description, the action of the narration, and the revelation of the characterization with justification of motivation for the realization of an intention, but this expectation is thwarted and builds tension with frustration before resolution.
That seems decent.
I will finish with two small notes.
I just listened to one of Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcasts for the first time the other day. That plays perfectly into the article I wrote about pulling story ideas from history. Carlin is great about putting history into a unique narrative already.
I started watching “Blood Drive” because I am very loosely linked to someone associated with the show. I don’t usually watch Grindhouse type of shows, or horror, but I think it is a lot like sushi. I didn’t like sushi the first 7 times that I tried it, but now I really like it. There is no way to learn how to write something like that other than by analyzing that type of show and the practice of writing it. Sometimes it seems that with mainstream or other genre writing it would be possible to learn it from books and courses because so many exist, and so many people claim that they can teach it to you. But, truly, you can only really learn any skill through application.
You are welcome to join me in this ongoing journey at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com