General writing discussion thread

Did you write something for the Simpsons, Futurama, original fiction or another fandom? Feel free to post it here!
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General writing discussion thread

Post by c_nordlander » Fri Mar 26, 2021 8:41 pm

One thing I've noticed about many writing forums is that they can be difficult to strike into, if that makes any sense. So many threads are either reviews/opinion threads for discrete stories or very narrow discussions about a certain writing topic, neither of which have much room for detours.

So there's this thread. Yak about writing in general, ask questions, spitball ideas. Whatever takes your fancy.
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Re: General writing discussion thread

Post by gkscotty » Thu Apr 01, 2021 1:03 pm

Unfortunately I don't have much to say except complain about lack of inspiration. Not sure what brings that back. I guess all writing starts with confidence.
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It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do bad things. - Jingo, Terry Pratchett
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Re: General writing discussion thread

Post by c_nordlander » Thu Apr 01, 2021 8:04 pm

I've had long fallow periods myself. Play games, read stuff, see what ideas come into your head.

If it's any consolation, we all think you're a very good writer.
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Re: General writing discussion thread

Post by SirMustapha » Fri Apr 02, 2021 1:36 am

gkscotty wrote: Thu Apr 01, 2021 1:03 pm Unfortunately I don't have much to say except complain about lack of inspiration. Not sure what brings that back. I guess all writing starts with confidence.
It's funny, because I recall starting out stories without much confidence at all. All I had was an idea, and a willingness to see how (and if) it would work out. I figure that, if the idea is compelling enough, I'll make an effort to chase it. Coming across compelling ideas... well, that's the problem. I'm not very good with that, I think, so I just let them come to me.

I probably wouldn't be able to make a living from writing alone.
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Re: General writing discussion thread

Post by SirMustapha » Mon Apr 05, 2021 5:54 pm

There's one thought that's been buzzing inside my mind lately, and I guess it's a pretty broad and complex, but that's exactly the kind of stuff I get caught up with. The question is, more or less, how far does the edge of a writer's "style" reach; in other words, how much of a piece of writing can be validly criticised, before we actually start interfering with the writer's conscious choices and preferences.

And mind you, I'm not asking this as a reader, or a critic, or a beta reader who makes concrit, but as a writer myself. It's more a case of, how much of my writing is actually my style, and how much am I just creating excuses for deficiencies and flaws? One example off the top of my head is that, in general, my stories aren't very rich in visual descriptions, whether it's the characters, the settings, the scenery or anything. I suppose the main reason is that I'm just not a visually-minded person. I've tried on occasion to look at people's faces and try to describe to myself what exactly makes one face different from each other, and it's really, really hard. So, if I had to imagine a face, it's either a complete blur, or a rough approximation of someone I know. It's very hard for me to memorise people's faces, to the point where it can be troublesome: if the person in front of me in the line to the cashier has to leave and asks me to reserve their place, in a matter of seconds, I just forget what they look like, and I get worried that I won't recognise them when they're back--so, theoretically, someone else could take their place and I wouldn't even notice.

So, for example, would it be fair if I made the claim that my stories are short in visual descriptions and details simply because that reflects who I am as a person? Could that work as a "defence" against criticism that my writing is dry? Or should I do the proper thing, which would be to exercise and develop my vision? Do I have a "non-visual narrative style", or am I just lazy and/or incapacitated?

The reason why this bugs me so much is that there are plenty of writers whose style could be criticised as lazy, or even bad, but they're super renowned. One extreme case is Portuguese novelist José Saramago, whose novels have these MASSIVE run on sentences, to the point where it can be hard to read. The dialogue lacks any tags or any cues of what the characters are doing while they're talking, and the only mark that the character speaking has changed is a single capital letter (so a fragment from The Formicide Gang would read like this: It's awful when it happens, right, Dani, When what happens, Insomnia, you couldn't sleep, Yeah, I couldn't, I've brewed some coffee, you can have some, Yes, I saw it, but then, I'll lose my sleep for good, Well, have a seat here, then.). In short, the prose is messy, convoluted, tough to read, and sometimes can make you lose track of who's saying what. The guy had a Nobel Prize in Literature. He didn't have shitty prose: it was his style.

There are other examples that are not that extreme, but that have brought me problems. In some of my works, I've tried to use extremely short chapters, and the narrator explicitly addressing the reader. Those might look like awkward choices, but they were some of the "trademarks" of Machado de Assis, the greatest Brazilian novelist in history (and they can be seen, for example, in Epitaph of a Small Winner, which includes, among other thing, a chapter that consists exclusively of punctuation marks). I deliberately aped that style in The Error, which has a particularly wacky chapter structure, and even though it might look quite gimmicky, I still like that story.

Of course, wacky chapters and "conversational" prose are a conscious choice, and though many people might not like it, I could defend that as a literary style. Now, a lack of visual description is more of a deficiency, but, would it be honest to try to turn that into an actual stylistic choice? I mean, at the very bottom of it, there's no "rights" or "wrongs" when it comes to art, just conventions that pertain to genres, movements, scenes, etc.

Also, I have to make a confession: books that are too loaded with visual description can be very overwhelming to me. If the author spends two paragraphs making a verbal painting of a town, or a forest, or a person, it inevitably becomes a jumble of information in my brain, and I can't just turn that into my own mental picture. On the other hand, sometimes I just naturally, spontaneously create mental pictures of places and people, which may or may not correspond to what the author intended to create, and I think there's a certain beauty to that: the beauty of indeterminacy in art.
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Re: General writing discussion thread

Post by c_nordlander » Mon Apr 05, 2021 6:48 pm

Gonna start right off the bat by saying that I don't have an answer to your question. It's something I've been asking myself, too, especially when reviewing other people's work and realising that they have different stylistic goals than myself.

First of all, glad I'm not the only writer here who doesn't have a very visual imagination.

I remember your short, descriptively-titled chapters in The Error: I consider them a memorable and personal part of the story.

I think some people get their ideas of what is good style from very prescriptive "how to write" books. The style they've learnt may be perfectly fine, but they've come away with the idea that that is the only way to write fiction, and criticise everything that falls outside those narrow limits. Then again, obviously you can't just lean your elbows on the keyboard for thirty minutes and call it "my personal style," either. There are always unhealthy extremes around the middle ground.

At the end of the day, I tell myself that nothing beats getting constructive criticism from a fair sample of people with a range of tastes. The last part is the key: it will help you find people who like your style while still being able to tell you that some things need improvement, as well as people who may help you curb the excesses of your style. Something we all need sometimes, I think.
Welcome to our little town
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Here, just fill out the paperwork and you can look around
We work and then we work and then we work and then we work and then we work and then we work
And then we end up in the ground.


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Re: General writing discussion thread

Post by SirMustapha » Wed Apr 21, 2021 4:35 pm

So there's another reflection/pondering about a theme that I often see raised, though, admittedly, mostly in film reviews and discussions: the character arc.

Also, I'll freely admit that this mostly ties in to some creative decisions and choices specific to The Formicide Gang, but I believe this applies to writing in general, so that's why I'm writing this here.

I think it might be unfair to bring here a topic that I almost always see applied to movie discussions, because it's quite well known that cinema is a very different medium from books (even more so when we're talking about mainstream cinema); but, to me, it seems like cinema and TV series kinda deal the cards in how stories should be told, and with so many high profile book-to-movie adaptations, it at least feels in the industry side of things that movies are the "supreme" form of storytelling, at least to the general public.

I started to really form this thought in my head after I watched Lindsay Ellis's video comparing Spielberg's War of the Worlds with Independence Day, asking which one is the most effective "alien invasion" movie. I confess I haven't watched War of the Worlds, so it's not like I can confront Ellis's opinions with my own, but I don't think that's necessary. One of her criticisms of that movie regards one of the characters, the teenage son of the protagonist. She states that his role in the film is confusing, and that he's relegated to moving the plot along by making some very bad, infantile decisions, and, at the end, he seems to have learned nothing. There was no payoff.

Here's the thing. Again, because I haven't seen the film, I can't say how accurate her assessment is, but the character in question is a teenager. Teenagers make a lot of shit decisions. The entire role of the teenager in Western society is to make shit decisions. I've been a teenager, ya know, I can say that. And some of those "lessons" we have to learn, we might take years to "learn" anything. I'm 35 and I'm still "learning" from the stuff I made when I was 16. However, in a movie, it's expected that the teenage kid learns his lessons and becomes a "better person" within the span of two hours. Otherwise, the lack of "payoff" makes an unsatisfying ending. In other words, if a person behaves like a person, that's a flaw in the story.

Isn't that kinda backwards?

I mean, I understand that, when we hear, read or watch a story, we usually want a satisfying ending. ... but why, really? Is that what we actually want? When you're in a pub with friends, and someone talks about that time they got drunk and almost caused a fight in a party, the whole entertainment is the story itself. We don't expect our buddy to end with "and that day, I learnt a valuable lesson, and I never made that mistake again". If anything, we hope they didn't learn anything, so they could keep making stupid decisions that led to more funny stories to tell in the pub. If there's anything that real life teaches us, is that people don't really "change" all that much. Yes, we evolve, we learn, we change slowly over time, but do we really stop making old mistakes all of a sudden? Do we really get completely rid of old habits just because of one specific incident that could be narrated in a two hour movie?

To me, life seems to be way more complex than that. However, mainstream cinema has somehow convinced us that characters must, as a requirement, "change" within the span of a story. That "change" can be the defining factor on whether a film is acceptable as a narrative story. One of Ellis's arguments for why Independence Day is a more effective movie is that there's a "payoff" for each character. Everyone somehow becomes "better". A noble movie embiggens the smallest man. Could that really be the case? Is Independence Day the better movie because each character goes through an impromptu "coaching session" and comes out as a "better person" (according to which standards?)? I'll go further: could it be that this requirement for magical self-improvement in movies has led the way for people to look for those actual "life coaching" "professionals" that sell you a magical recipe that will change your whole life in two weeks? Here, do this little activity, and you'll be more self-confident, more assertive and more proactive, just like a character in a Roland Emmerich movie! Because, if you don't improve that quickly, you're a failure in life.

... well, so... the point is, maybe this idea that there must be a "character arc" for everyone, that necessarily leads to some kind of "improvement", is not only a strict requirement, but can kinda be detrimental overall. And that's one of the things that's buzzing in my head as I look through the events of The Formicide Gang: I don't want everyone to come out as a "better person" at the end. I don't want everyone to "learn a lesson". If there's any "message" I'd like to deliver with this novel is that, really, sometimes there are just no "lessons". Yes, it's true, the characters do go through a transformative process as the story goes on, and they make decisions that affect their lives greatly, and it's not a stretch to say that, by the time they go home, they're no longer the same people they were whey they arrived. At the same time, they're all teenagers. They don't "learn" things that quickly. They don't necessarily become "better people" by the end of the story. They just live a succession of events, and they have to navigate it the best they can. I actually want to be careful not to give the wrongful impression that some characters "did the right thing", as if I'm trying to teach teenagers how to live. I don't want this book to be a coaching session or a life lesson. I want these characters to be interesting for what they are, not for what they become.

Yeah, I think this text has been more of a vomit than a careful elaboration or an attempt to answer a question, because, well, I don't think there are "answers" here. Just possibilities. But that's what I feel I have to say right now.

(Fernie didn't learn anything by the end of this rant. That's a totally unsatisfying ending! Clearly Independence Day is better than this.)
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Re: General writing discussion thread

Post by c_nordlander » Wed Apr 21, 2021 10:15 pm

Cheesy Hollywood writing conventions are an easy punching bag. And no, fiction shouldn't always be about making the characters (or audience) into better people. That would get really predictable, for a start.

However, I personally never got the impression that a "character arc" necessarily implies that the character becomes a better person (whatever your metric for "better person"). I'd say that any character development counts as a character arc, and I know from what I've read that several of your characters in The Formicide Gang develop over the course of the plot (even though I'm still not up to speed with it). In other words, there's their character arcs. (And from what I've seen so far, it's all natural and unforced.)

In the wider scope, I think any work the length of a novel or feature film will need to have the main characters develop somehow. If I read a full-length novel and the main characters stayed static, my reaction would be that a) this is badly written, or b) this is a deliberate decision from the author. Some literary critics would even say that if the main character doesn't change as a result of the plot, what's the point? I don't necessarily think that all stories have to be character-centric, but it's still something I keep in mind.

Notice that we're talking about The Formicide Gang, not a short story. Some very short fiction might be set during the same timeframe it takes to read/view it... which still doesn't preclude the character changing. But it's not going to be as marked as the change over the course of a novel.

Don't force character development, I guess is what I'm saying. It shouldn't fit into a neat arc of a certain number of degrees, but if it happens, it happens. Like most things involving writing characters, if you have a clear enough idea of the characters, their development will come on its own.
Welcome to our little town
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We work and then we work and then we work and then we work and then we work and then we work
And then we end up in the ground.


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Re: General writing discussion thread

Post by SirMustapha » Thu Apr 22, 2021 3:49 pm

Cheesy Hollywood writing conventions are an easy punching bag.
Yes, I realise it's a bit obvious, but my intention was not just to ruminate on film cliches on themselves, but on the way they might create a common belief that this is how stories should work, like when a tradition turns into a convention and, eventually, into a rule. I find that rather insidious.
In the wider scope, I think any work the length of a novel or feature film will need to have the main characters develop somehow. If I read a full-length novel and the main characters stayed static, my reaction would be that a) this is badly written, or b) this is a deliberate decision from the author. Some literary critics would even say that if the main character doesn't change as a result of the plot, what's the point?
For me, the reason why a character staying static for the length of a whole novel can be equated to bad writing (save for cases when this is intended and makes sense within the work's proposal, e.g. a character is the personification of a concept, or the narrator is unreliable, or something like that) is the same as my original argument: people just aren't like that. People are complex things, and our behaviour can vary pretty wildly in different situations; also, we are endlessly profound, and you could write volumes and volumes about a moderately interesting individual. So, when you read a novel, you're pretty much spending time in the company of those people, and if you don't get to know something about those people along the way, then it must've been a very dull experience.

Yes, I think the idea of discovering the characters through the duration of a story is important, and, to my own taste, a gradual unfolding process is more interesting than the "set-up/conflict/pay-off" formula that I mentioned earlier. Also, this doesn't mean that every conflict needs to be "resolved" eventually, like a joke needs a punchline.

Also, I realise that my novel does have quite a bunch of those "pay-offs", where something that is addressed at one point is eventually "fixed", even if not in a definitive manner. The source of insecurity is the idea that having this character that doesn't "improve" at the end is a big flaw, even if it's somehow justified. And there are other quirks about this novel that makes me start worrying about potential criticism, like the fact that the "main plot" takes so long to get started, and then is resolved around the second third of the text, and then it keeps going. I keep getting these voices telling "that's not how a story works!" and such.
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Re: General writing discussion thread

Post by c_nordlander » Thu Apr 22, 2021 8:39 pm

SirMustapha wrote: Thu Apr 22, 2021 3:49 pm
Cheesy Hollywood writing conventions are an easy punching bag.
Yes, I realise it's a bit obvious, but my intention was not just to ruminate on film cliches on themselves, but on the way they might create a common belief that this is how stories should work, like when a tradition turns into a convention and, eventually, into a rule. I find that rather insidious.
I get that. I just think that most people reading this forum probably won't have such simplistic ideas of writing. (That said, everyone needs to hear something for the first time.)

Heartily agree with all your other points. I have nothing to add.

I would say: just don't listen to the insecurity. If your readers are so narrow-minded that they think all your characters need to become better people by the end, you probably don't want them as readers. And if you just stick to writing realistic, complex characters (who will develop in certain ways as suits their personalities and experiences), you'll probably end up with a story you can be proud of.
Welcome to our little town
Why don't you settle down?
Here, just fill out the paperwork and you can look around
We work and then we work and then we work and then we work and then we work and then we work
And then we end up in the ground.


- The Stupendium, "The Fine Print"
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