Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Good Advice Gone Bad

Ever hear a piece of advice that sounds great at first hearing but starts to look pretty lame when you begin to dissect it? I found just such a piece of advice in Wild Mind, a book on writing that I’m reading along with my Harry Potter fix. The advice was essentially, find a line you like, then just add the next line, and the next. “Don’t think further ahead than the next line. Don’t think back. Just build that story.” And: “Place those sentences down, as if you were laying bricks. Keep each one true.”

Man that sounds good. Or does it? As I began to think about it, two problems with these statements quickly occurred to me. First, if you build a piece line by line you’re not building a story. A story goes somewhere. It has a destination, even if that destination is rather vague and different for different readers. I’ve started stories the way this author suggests, and I think it can work to find a beginning, but unless I soon begin to think ahead, and back, and sideways, the piece ends up nowhere and either gets stuck in my “writing pieces” file or gets reworked from the beginning with more thought given to it.

Second, although the bricklaying metaphor works perfectly for the suggestion the author makes, I don’t think it works as a metaphor for how stories and novels really get written. Many successful writers I know work from outlines; a much better metaphor, then, might be a blueprint. And if you just lay one brick after another after another you’re going to end up with a wall, not a building. I don’t write with an extensive outline, but that means I constantly have to stop writing and start thinking. At some point you just can’t proceed until you know at least partly what has happened before and what is going to happen next. At least I find it to be so.

Turns out, the author of Wild Minds seems to have gotten this advice from Raymond Carver, and this was an epiphany of sorts for me. That’s why I can’t stand Carver’s stories. They begin in a random place, meander about for a bit while repeating themselves, and then end up nowhere. They’re walls of bricks, with no windows or interiors. They’re not really stories.

Whew! Now I can rest easier.
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52 comments:

Jon said...

> They’re walls of bricks, with no
> windows or interiors. They’re not
> really stories.

or no foundation; one push and they fall over.

- Jon (who hasn't written anything for 10 years so can't claim any expertise here)

the walking man said...

Not everyone is meant to be a stone mason. Some are needful of being the architect. Either way both have to have some sort of plan before the pencil hits the page.

Sam said...

brick brick brick...
I agree with your anology -
it makes no sense to just put words down.

Greg Schwartz said...

i hope many of the writers reading that book realized that's bad advice like you did. it might work for the short term -- a paragraph, or maybe even a short chapter -- but definitely not a story.

i never understood carver's stories, maybe that's why.

thanks for bringing that to light!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think that advice might work in a beginning writing class where students haven't opened their head up to story ideas, but on the whole...

Angie said...

I agree that the brick-brick-brick technique might help you get started, get your creativity loosened up, get something started and up on the screen, etc., but I can't imagine writing a whole story that way. Eventually you have to have some direction in mind. Even if you don't draw up blueprints first -- which I don't, I'm basically a pantser -- you need some idea of which direction you're headed, even if you don't know exactly which streets (roads, paths, freeways) you're going to take to get there.

Angie

BernardL said...

I don't think line by line means you can't envision a plot developing, Charles. Good bricklayers build some very attractive creations. :)

Angie said...

Bernard -- sure, but they generally have a plan in mind. They don't start with a pile of bricks and a bucket of mortar and no clue what they're going to be building, you know? :)

Angie

Miladysa said...

Congratulations on hitting the 50 page mark with Razored Land - you're probably a lot further on now though :D

I'm having so much difficulty writing in any form at the moment that a single course of bricks would do me fine LOL

In the long run I agree with you and think you need to have the blue print first.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jon, exactly. No depth or strength.

Mark, the more I write the more I see how important at least an outline of a plan is.

Sam, in the past I've actually started poems that way, but always they had to be extensively rewritten and a plan occurred to me at some point.

Greg Schwartz, probably most people will interpret the advice through their own thought processes. Sometimes I like to look at what people say literally though, what the words themselves say and what is either left out or was never there to begin with. I don't think Carver generally has a point, or so it seems to me.

pattinase, that might be. It's definitely a beginning technique I think.

Angie, yes, that's exactly how I think of it. I'm a pantser too but I can see clearly that where I bog down in a story or book is when I haven't done enough thinking ahead.


BernardL, well, I guess there's a difference in what is literally down on the page and what one interprets. I think that's part of the reason why the advice seems good at first, because people make interpretations of it that fit their own way of writing. But literally the advice was to not think ahead beyond the next line. Of course I've seen good bricklayers build neat things, but I've always suspected they had a plan for it before they got many bricks laid.

Angie, agreed.

Mary Witzl said...

You DO have to think ahead when you write -- that's why this brick-laying metaphor doesn't work. You have to look back, too, and skip ahead, then make further trips back, if necessary. And at some point, you may even have to take out a whole line of bricks and start over again. Writing stories isn't like brick-laying or knitting. If I had to compare it to anything, I'd compare it to cooking: sometimes you can do without planning ahead, but sometimes you can't. And you can have all the right ingredients and use them in the wrong order and still end up with a flop...

ivan said...

I never took the "Famous Writers" course offered to optimists a few decades ago, but there is something in their assertion that all you have to do is let one word follow another, keep it up, and you'll soon be a famous writer.

I do know a successful cartoonist who took the Famous Artists' course that was co-offered, but he too said there was something lacking in the course, that lack probably a person with more desire than actual talent.

The buzz phrase. And then letting one word follow another.

Well, hell, that's how I started without taking the course.

I've said it before, but even a paranoid, if he writes enough, will eventually come out with something sensible, certainly resembling some sort of expository writing. The ninety-nine monkeys on ninety-nine typewriters thing.

"To be or not to be, that is the glatz...(whoops, typo!)

Jesu Cristo, how crappy our writing is when we first begin.

We men--at least this one-- start with the great "God Is My CoPilot" type of novel, the iconic fighter pilot, face, helmet earphones reflected in the instruments of our P-40's, John Belushis, all of us, in "Pearl Harbour", or maybe fuzzy Snoopy puppies, keepers of the flame, flaming out with Red Baron strafe tracks all over out doghouses. Sad nights in the barracks. Love later. "When Dashing Pierre of the Lafayette Escadrille goes down, he goes down in Flames!"

Damn that Snoopy could write good.

I think the debate here is between the genius and the craftsman. You can produce any number of terrific stories by emulating Kipling and applying his method to pretty well any situation.This might be called creative writing. Change a war patrol inte a bad day at the office, a foray into love, getting a stubborn Volkwagen to work.
But I suspect Kipling was a pantser, It was the sitting down at the desk, oranizing your pencils, pen, typewriter, paper--and from raw experience, especially heartbreak, something will come.
Strafe marks on the barrack roof.
The god will come.

The craftseman/craftswoman might produce a work of apparent genius...look at Jules Verne.
But it took inspiration, distillation to make a Startrek, a digest,condensation of all the wrold's great literature, including, of course, Jules Verne.
How in hell could you build a house, brick by brick and come out with something by H.P. Lovecraft?
Snail-like things that looked like the Masonic emblem on the American one dollar bill, but crawled out of the depths to devour everything in their path.
Craft is craft, but genius is 100 per cent hard work, 100 per cent luck, 100 per cent genius.
Any novel by Dostoevsky is beautifully crafted, but he gets into trouble with The Possessed. There is no real plot and the story has great holes in it. Dostoevsky writing for once with no plot. The evil character of Kirilov somehow posesses Dostoevky, damns the book
And yet we write more convincingly from experience and not craft. Something give you a bang, probably for life and you have to write your way out. Dostevky certainly was butalized quite a bit especially in the punishment camp, whre the Marquis de Sade or Leautrement may have been mere pussies.
Craft writes through artifice.
Genius writes because it must.

But still, I'm not sure the debate is settled.
Genius or craftsman, that is the question.

Kerby Jackson said...

I agree here, I think that it's bad advice and I'm saying that, coming from the perspective that it's something I once did myself.

Personally, I think that this type of free writing is sometimes good to help develop characters and ideas, but sooner or later, you are going to hit a wall and find it necessary to stop and spend a lot of time trying to figure out where you are headed. More often than not, work written this way seems to find its way into a file somewhere, from which it never returns.

From a personal standpoint, I find it a lot easier to take whatever basic premise I have (which is typically a very loose idea) and to outline it from there. It's not really an outline in the traditional form, but more of an event by event, chapter by chapter plan.

Once you do that, the writing part of the process is actually very easy and of course, you can add any little ideas you might have as you go along without getting distracted.

~ Kerby Jackson
http://www.western-stories.com/

Charles Gramlich said...

Mary Witzl, I think it's part of that idea that the "unconscious" can write better than the conscious mind. but in truth you have to have both. The unconscious by itself can't produce a coherent piece.

ivan, perhaps there is genius that can achieve without thought. I don't know that I've ever met one in person and I know I'm not among that number. I also know that even geniuses lie about what they do. most people exaggerate or underexagerate the effort it takes for them to achieve their works of genius.

Kerby Jackson, I don't outline a whole book either, but use a kind of expandable outline as I go. I've used that kind of freewriting, more in the past than now, to get started on something, but unless the thought comes along it ends up being a pure exercise and never goes anywhere I feel a story should go. Thanks for dropping by. I've checked out your website, but have more to explore there.

david mcmahon said...

Have to confess I have not spent a lot of time reading his work.

Steve Malley said...

In half-hearted defense of those brick-by-brick writers, Carver stole it off of James Joyce, who built towering, recursive labyrinths, one brick at a time. Today, Tom Robbins has built a fair body of work with his writing goal of one sentence a day-- and no idea where he's headed.

Seems to me like an extreme form of writing by the seat of one's pants, the way Barry Eisler and Mickey SPillane have been known to. Nothing wrong with taking your story one sentence at a time-- *if* that's what gets that first draft finished.

The danger I see is those words 'a sentence you like'. I know an awful lot of un-authors whose fatal sin is trying to write only the perfect. Some days, you just have to hold your nose and write the f**king thing...

David Cranmer said...

Yeah, that wouldn't work for me either. As a matter of fact it sounds like something Dr. Phil would say if he gave writing classes.

writtenwyrdd said...

Sometimes things that sound utterly profound are really just so simplistic that they are practically useless. But man do they sound good at first listen!

jodi said...

Charles, seems to me that the brick method is just that. A method. Can't see how it would be the BEST or ONLY method. Myself, I cannot invison the guts of writing something without at least a basic idea.

Travis said...

Well, I guess you can build poetry in the way this guy suggests. But a fully formed story? Nah.

Heff said...

At least you got that off your chest !

Charles Gramlich said...

david mcmahon, you're not missing much in my opinion.

Steve Malley, you know, I don't believe it about Tom Robbins. I've read quite a bit of his stuff and I suspect that he does a lot of free form stuff and modifies with planning. I don't know about Joyce. I've never been able to get through his stuff.
I used to try to write only the perfect. Even today I block myself way to often that way. But trying for perfection doesn't usually result in it anyway.

David Cranmer, yeah it does, one of those oversimplified things that you can applaud and then say "wha?"

writtenwyrdd, exactly. they seem to make so much sense but when you think about them you're even more confused.

jodi, I could see it for short pieces like poetry maybe, although even then I don't think it's terribly effective in many cases.

Travis, I think you could do poetry, and I've done it pretty much that way. But always I've had to go back and revise to make coherence.

Heff, now I need a beer.

Aine said...

I'm not a fan of meandering writing either. I like well planned, meaningful endings.

Harry Potter "fix", eh? ;)

(Talk about planning stories-- Rowling planned for something like 10 years. She's posted some of her subplot planning charts on her site.)

L.A. Mitchell said...

I've always admired writers who are pantsers, but it seems a waste of time to me, too. Good in the experimental phase, I suppose, but so much will go astray.

Charles Gramlich said...

Aine, I need to check her site out. I just finished the last Potter book and feel that little sadness you get at the end of a good series. I very much enjoyed them.

L.A. Mitchell, well, there are pantser and then there are superpantsers. I consider myself a sort of pantser but I stop periodically and plan ahead.

Chris said...

You've inspired me, in a roundabout sort of way, to check out some Carver again. I recall liking it in college, though it's very oblique, and all rather depressing. He's a guy a lot of so-called intellectuals make a big deal about, and I know I've had difficulty separating his critical reception (namely that he's an "important" writer) from what I actually think of the work.

I absolutely loved the film Short Cuts, though, which is based on several of his stories. I'm going to read some stories from Cathedral and post a review on my blog.

Great work here! Thanks for the food for thought! (:

Angie said...

Chris -- I definitely recommend the whole Short Cuts collection of shorts. I read them in college too, and then we watched the movie, and I remember liking the stories more. The film made changes which dragged the characters and their settings into a more glamorous strata -- not a rich-and-famous milieu, but definitely more of an upper-middle class range, and set in LA which has a lot more inherent money, fame and excitement permeating it than the original little random towns where Carver placed his struggling characters. One of his major points was that they were struggling; they weren't professional people in fancy houses. They were hanging by their fingernails over the poverty line, and even the ones who were doing a bit better were living in a dull, grey environment where you had to wonder sometimes whether maybe you'd died and just not noticed yet. The film scraped away that entire layer of atmosphere and I think misses a lot of Carver's point.

Anyway, the original stories are worth reading. :)

Angie

Avery DeBow said...

You're absolutely right, Charles. If you start tossing down bricks with no clear plan, you get what the Architect calls "structural failure."

laughingwolf said...

gotta agree with that, charles, with no story idea lines end up lost...

Scott said...

Charles,

I can't say that I agree with that metaphor or method for writing, either...I ussually have some sort of plan when I sit and write, and sometimes as I write it takes some interseting turns that I hadn't realized would occur...I guess for me writing is more of a journey than putting bricks in line.

Charles Gramlich said...

Chris, well if you must read Carver I suppose there's no accounting for taste. ;) I never saw Short cuts, but if it's anything like his stories I'm sure I'd hate it. There just really doesn't seem to be any passion in his work, but if folks are getting something out of his stuff then obviously I'm missing something.


Angie, I never saw Short cuts. The thing that I felt in reading about Carver's characters is that they don't struggle at all. They just seem to exist. But hey, that's why there are so many different writers. We can all find something we like. I'm always going to consider Carver a waste of time, though. At least from reading the collection "Cathedral."

Avery DeBow, or like on Star Trek where the shields are at the collapsing point.!

laughingwolf, yeah, and I don't like getting lost in a story. I like to know the author is leading me somewhere.

Scott, yes, new things pop up all the time in writing and aren't really planned, but then you have to put some effort into integrating them with the ongoing story line.

Angie said...

Charles -- he's definitely not into dynamic, pro-active characters. [grin] But that's part of what he's about, looking at situations people find themselves in, and how people struggle in their feeble little way, having dreams but never doing anything really heroic to achieve them (like a lot of real people, actually) and what comes of that. I can get into that in short bursts.

The movie didn't change the plots significantly, but by changing the kinds of people involved and the setting, Altman tried to brighten things up, and that's not what Carver's about. I've never understood why Hollywood bothers licensing properties if they're going to change fundamentals. If you're going to change it that much, why not just start from scratch? [sigh]

Angie

Erik Donald France said...

Even building a stonewall, you're laying down some overall form. The blueprint or a sketch sounds about right. The sentence by sentence way is like the surrealist game, "Exquisite Corpse." You end up with something surreal. Carver's stories consist of atmposphere, not heavily structured though some heavily edited (down!) by Gordon Lish. Depends on what kind of "reading food" one wants at the moment, yes? Some people just hate peas, some people hate any kind of meat.

laughingwolf said...

you know it, charles...

Chris Eldin said...

I like your metaphor---about ending up with a wall and not a building.
I'm still trying to find a balance between free-writing and working from an outline.

Cloudia said...

Matters of taste, even in litterature, are largely JUST that: tastes. Sure, Poe is better than the trash books at the drugstore, but pleasure is with the reader. Too each his own, that's how I remain philosophical when someone is luke-warm to my little book. Folks I respect really GET & LIKE it - a few don't. I'm sure Raymond Carver didn't live for approval - except his own. You can't please everyone, and I count every stranger who writes me a nice email or Amazin review a GIFT rhat I really appreciate! Another worthy & educational post. Aloha, Charles

Shauna Roberts said...

Did you continue reading that writing book? I think I would have stopped right there.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I throw my bricks in a pile. Then I think about what I'm going to build. Sometimes my stories are half constructed at the beginning (in medias ras) and I work it in both directions. Sometimes I'll run with a linear story, usually in the present tense, to learn what my main character is all about. The later case is more of a "Don't Look Back" type of writing; but trust me, I'm looking back every step of the way.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I’ve always been kind of the mindset that I don’t really want to read about completely realistic people doing completely realistic things. I mean, I live life. I see such people every day, see the kinds of messes they’ve made of their lives, and when I am not working I just don’t want to see the same old same old. I’d rather read about people who have a realism about them, but who strive and work to better themselves and their world. I think that’s the main reason I prefer genre fiction to literary fiction. True, if they’re going to change the movies so much from the literary mold then why do it? I agree.

Erik Donald France, I know one friend who said Carver was his favorite writer. But I don’t understand the fascination myself. I’m glad we don’t all have exactly the same tastes, though. Except, I wish everyone in the world liked my books. ;)

laughingwolf, yuppers.

Chris Eldin, I tell my students the difference between writers is not so much in whether they do outlining as to whether they do it formally or not. I certainly plan ahead in my stories and books, or else I almost always hit dead ends.

Cloudia, I don’t really know anything about Carver as a person. Not sure what his motivations were, although I doubt he was in it just for the money. Pleasure is certainly with the reader, and it’s good that tastes do differ.

Shauna Roberts, I put it down for a while. I’ll probably read a bit more, read it in small increments to see if I can find any useful nuggets. I already see that the book tries to make writing into a more mystical experience than I typically think about it as being.

JR, I do that when I’m first starting stories that I don’t have a specific market in mind for. I don’t plan them linearly, for sure. But during the work I’m all over the place in time relative to what’s happening on the page.

Ello said...

Interesting - I find a lot of meandering stories really bother the heck out of me - it is why I found genre writing so much more straight forward and easy to read. No the bricklayer approach to creative writing is not a good idea!

Paul R. McNamee said...

Sounds like a great free-your-mind writing exercise, but it doesn't sound like anyway to go about drafting a coherent story.

J. L. Krueger said...

Unfortunately some beginners will read that and think it a good idea.

As a writing exercise maybe, but not for crafting a story.

Your analogy nails their advice for the purely mechanical method that it is.

I think perhaps weaving is more analogous to good writing than "bricklaying."

In weaving you are are working multiple threads simultaneously, which is a lot more like crafting a good story than plopping down bricks one at a time. In that sense the bricklaying writing approach isn't as much art and mechanics, whereas to think of writing more like weaving combines the mechanics with art.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ello, yes, I like to see the free exercise of imagination but I do like it to go somewhere. I've written a few literary stories and I chafe at the bit when I do. I always feel held back and held down.

Paul R. McNamee, I think a lot of her focus is on writing exercises but when you're trying to work at being a writer you can't just do exercises all the time.

Danette Haworth said...

Ha! Charles, I laughed when you said, "That's why I don't like RC books."

Having an outline means you have a clear vision of the story. The climax and the beginning emerge first for me; it's the outline I must work at. I must build a solid bridge between the two.

The writing is so much easier to accomplish with the outline. Mine is a loose guide, but it provides the framework I need to accomplish the story goals.

Barbara Martin said...

A story needs a proper foundation with which to write. Building a story one line at a time is asking for it to collapse before the writer has a change to put the supports in around the base. You have to think to the past, the present and the future in any manuscript to enable the story to unfold.

Charles Gramlich said...

Danette Haworth, I don't construct a detailed outline but I always do planning and when I out write my plan I have to stop and flounder until I can figure out what goes next.

Barbara Martin, yes exactly. Span all the times around the story in order to center the story. Otherwise it has no anchor.

Michelle's Spell said...

Writing advice is very tricky, I think. The best piece of advice I ever got was to spend as much time as possible in the place where you write. It sounded bizarre and new agey when I heard it, but when I started to practically live in my office, my writing improved a lot. Something about the energy. My only real advice to people is to keep going no matter what! Maybe I'll be a cheerleader in my next life. :)

Lisa said...

all i can say right now is lol...

i hate plans
i hate advice
i hate rules
just write it...

Lisa said...

i used to do that...

and i used to be good at it...

then life sucked me in...

and it all ended...

Barrie said...

"And if you just lay one brick after another after another you’re going to end up with a wall, not a building." I think you hit the nail on the head! (to continue the building metaphor!!)

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle's Spell, any advice at all is, I'm sure. And some folks probably have gotten a lot out of the things Natalie GOldberg says. I tend to think advice works only if the person interprets it for "their" life.

Lisa, writers write. Yes indeed. I hope your life straightens out a bit so you can get back to it.

Barrie, lol. Yes indeed. or the hammer on the thumb.

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