Monday, May 21, 2012

twelve and a half writing rules to break


So this image has been appearing in my social media feeds recently. Perhaps I am just sick of these kind of 'handy help in a poster' posts, but this one just pushed me over the edge. If you honestly think that writing has a failsafe twelve-step program, you need to find a new hobby. Of course, having said that, if these somehow work for you, then please ignore the following.


There is an unspoken irony in this tautology that is meant to be clever. (Note: all tautologies sound clever but are actually pretentious. I'm looking at you Mr. 'art is not what art is not' Joseph Kosuth) But enough about conceptual art -- back to irony. So great, you are now writing every day, but what if instead of getting better at the writing bit, you are only getting better at the every day bit. Quantity is not quality. I find not writing for a few days builds up some anxious momentum that can lead to better writing when I do get around to it. But more on this in rule 3.


As John Baldessari once famously wrote over and over again in a piece of video art (okay, I can't escape art references.. I teach the damn subject) 'I will not make any boring art' He did this until the tape ran out (or perhaps it was the ink in his pen -- I forget which came first) The point is, sometimes the desire to not be boring is in itself, boring. I love 'The Wire' because of all the interesting things that happen, but I love 'Treme' just as much for all the things that don't. Let a scene, a chapter, a character even, have their moments of boredom. That is life, and writing should tell us about life, right? Besides, boring bits make the action scenes so much more exciting.


Please. Kill me. If I wanted routine i'd have never left my job frying chips and dim sims in my home town. Routine is for people so afraid that they might loose their ability to create that they try to trap it and tame it with lists and routine. Your creativity is not a wild animal to tame. Fucking relax. You don't need to write every day, and you certainly don't need to have a routine to do it as if writing was a Japanese tea ceremony. Magritte worked in a suit and tie treating his painting like an office job, but Basquiat worked naked, leaving foot prints across his canvases as he scrambled to find his stash of drugs. Moral of the story: do what makes you feel good. (but more on morals when we get to rule 8)


And nor do paintings have to follow the rule of thirds, or have a balance of complimentary and contrasting colours to be aesthetically pleasing.. but it helps (fuck it, i'm sticking with the art analogies) Sure, poetry does not have to rhyme, but just like Picasso learned to paint figurative work before he invented Cubism, it is better to learn the form before re-inventing it. I have never read a rhyming poem that I thought would be better written in free verse. The opposite however, is not true. If you are one of those people who write poetry and feel the need to defend its lack of cinquains, clerihews or spenserian stanzas, then ask yourself first if you even know what those fucking words mean. And before I forget about our old friend irony, isn't it ironic that we are being told to break formal rules in our art by a poster telling proclaiming the importance of following rules. 


Whoa there. This is where Mr. advice poster steps over the line. Now its not just telling me how to write, but how to make friends? Fuck you poster. Stereotypes exist. There I've said it, and some of them are good friends of mine. Embrace stereotypes, and use them as you use words: to first convey meaning, then to challenge it. Avoiding stereotypes seems like such a hipster thing to do. And there we have old irony again, hand in hand with hypocrisy, reminding us that our favourite stereotype to mock in memes started as a reaction against being labeled. How quickly we become what we despise. And sorry, all you self hating hipsters, your favourite movie has at least three stereotypes in it, and you both love and identify with them. Oh, what's that? you would rather refer to them as "archetypes" as if that is acceptable, but stereotypes are not? Next we will find that passive voice is not to be used, ever. (see what I did there?) Embrace stereotypes just like artists embraced nude women. Sometimes, like Picasso, literally. (Typical womanising artist -- sheesh)


All the time. Really? And I suppose in this magical land I also hang out with artists and take time off from work to rally with the 99% on wall street while I eat organic apples and post about how we have lost touch with what's important in the world on my new ipad. Sorry, I will leave the hipsters alone now. Sure i'd love to read all the time. And if someone can make a machine to either double the amount of time in a day, or double me so I can make someone else do all the work while I get back to War and Peace, then i'll happily sign up to this rule. Besides, what if, like me, you happen to think that print is dead and audio books are the future? Does it count as reading if i'd rather listen to Roy Dotrice pretend to be both Jaime Lanister and Arya Stark? But I am getting too snarky. I do think that writers need to love story telling, just ease up on the form they have to be in. (also, for the record, I think GRR Martin spends at least as much time watching American football as he does read. Personally i'd rather him do neither and finish his series)


And I'm back in full rage mode. Make lists? seriously. This is meant to help? I took my senior art class to visit an actual artist working in her studio, and her biggest piece of advice to the kids was to get out of the habit of making their art folios into shopping lists of their favourite things. This artist (Katie Lee if anyone cares to have a look) also teaches at university, and she said the first thing she has to do is train new students out of the habit of approaching art like a fucking Sound of Music song. (my words, not hers) I don't need any notes or lists about life that I can't find faster on the internet. Wasn't the internet invented to keep lists. I do need to often write down plot points and story ideas, but i'd quickly forget these important things if I was always trying to keep record of what words I liked. Here is another word I like. Anal. As in, retentive, of course.  


This is a trap. By saying a story doesn't have to have a moral, sounds like you should stop worrying if your story has meaning. I agree that you should not set out to write something that proves a certain point (actually, why the hell not, I think it is actually what I did to be honest) but I don't see that there is anything wrong in looking at a story you have written and seeing that it does, in fact, mean something after all. This is kind of the point right? If your characters are not making choices based on their intrinsic morals coming up against the extrinsic forces of nature, and if those choices don't lead to outcomes and consequences that have a lasting effect, then what the fuck are you writing for? As far as I can tell from the wiki on the subject, a moral = lesson. And whilst I don't necessarily want to learn what every writer thinks the meaning of life is when I listen to one of their books, if I don't learn something interesting by the end of act one, i'm out.


Get a fucking smart phone and stop shoving stationary down my throat.


I think facebook, twitter as well as all the blogs in the blogswamp, have adequately proven the idea that posting about doing the dishes or what you ate for dinner kills fairies. And if this rule means for me to actually insert such activities into my WIP, then doesn't this contradict rule 2? Please make sure to put the bit about all the walks and gardening your protagonist gets up to on the back cover of your novel so I know not to read it.


This is the thinking that leads to poems that don't rhyme. By all means try something new, like inventing a new narrative perspective where your story is told in future tenths from an omnipresent narrator who sees only backward in time yet only speaks in italian even though the story is set in London. Oh, and he is a ghost. Or what about mixing up the flow of time more directly. 'Tarantino it.' Have the end at the beginning and the beginning half way through. Then end with the boring bit about the un-stereotypical stereotypes breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, explaining all the bits of the plot we missed. Or you could, you kno, learn how to write. 


Because heroes are like, so last century, right? I mean, if I was to remake Star Wars (one day I plan to re make Star Wars, just FYI) then i'd totally have the entire thing shown from Darth Vader's POV. You know, I'd make him like the central character you see; have us follow how he was born and came into his power then turned to the dark-side. It would really show a post modern take on the complexity of pre-determined destiny. Also i'd have him kill lots of children just to remind you that liking a main character makes you such a stereotypical audience member. I'd call my awesome new take on the 'other side' of the story something cool like 'The Phantom Presence' and it would totally not suck. 


Half of this 0.5 rule was the only thing worth reading at all. 


14 comments:

  1. "If you are one of those people who write poetry and feel the need to defend its lack of cinquains, clerihews or spenserian stanzas, then ask yourself first if you even know what those fucking words mean."

    I Love this. I can't tell you the number of students who say to me that they are "a Good Poet and I always write in free verse." Really? You're chaffed because I want you to write a singe Sonnet, but You're a "Good Poet?"

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    1. Lou, I categorize this under my theory of lego education. No doubt you lived lego as much as I did, and hopefully like me you had the sense to follow all the awesome instructions first, learning what each piece did and how to build up a massive space ship from small beginnings. Only then did you throw everything into a box and start to let your imagination (and frustration trying to find the right piece) run free.

      Too many people want to jump tot he last part without doing the first bit. They don't deserve their lego.

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    2. "you had the sense to follow all the awesome instructions first, learning what each piece did and how to build up a massive space ship from small beginnings. Only then did you throw everything into a box and start to let your imagination (and frustration trying to find the right piece) run free."

      I agree with this so much. I learned how to write poetry forms first, and I love them. I still write sonnets more than any other form, but once in awhile, I like to make up my own form, or write a freeverse. But my freeverse is a lot more structured than most of those you are talking about b/c I think poetry needs to have rhythm, even if it has no rhyme.

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    3. Exactly Esther. I think the reason we become writers (or painters or musicians or architects) in the first place is because we admire the craft of the art.

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  2. Love this post. Wish I had the time or brainspace to write - blah.

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  3. HA! I love this post SO much, that I'm tempted to hug my monitor!

    "And I suppose in this magical land I also hang out with artists and take time off from work to rally with the 99% on wall street while I eat organic apples and post about how we have lost touch with what's important in the world on my new ipad."

    ^^This. Right here. Yes. I'd wax philosophical on what's wrong in the world/USA today, but I'm too busy trying to read a middle grade book and "study" it to help write my own. If one more person tells me to read more books, I might burn my library card in protest.

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    1. burn it. And don't believe that piece of advice about studying other books to make your own better. Sure it can work, but then every portrait would look like the Mona Lisa.

      My best advice. Simplify. Write down a summary of what happens in your first three chapters, and see if you can tell the same thing in one. You have three characters who all get in the way of your hero? combine them into one antagonist who is three times as bad.

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  4. Hi Mr. McKenzie, glad I found your post, I enjoyed reading it! I actually got more insight on the writer's psyche out of your reaction to these rules than the rules itself. :) "Defy the rule"!

    Actually, some of them aren't horrible, although the reality of writing begs to differ with most. Act like a writer and bring your stupid pen, better yet, a 1930s typewriter and a beret, and behave writer-ish at all times, then you'll be one. No, of course not! And I hate that they always end with: Now stop reading these rules and write. Well, d'oh, that means the person who wrote them actually deliberately wasted my time. Me, angry now!

    But read a lot, become interested in the craft of storytelling, actually understand the fabric of it, learn to tell both sides - not because it hasn't been done yet, but because you'll exercise your empathic understanding for all kinds of characters and their motivation - this will help out a lot in making them more believable when you write antagonistic POVs, like for example George R. R. Martin does in A Song of Ice and Fire. There are rules behind telling stories. It doesn't mean that writing a bestseller is a building block concept, but it sure can't hurt studying the great (and/or successful writers, and understanding what they did right. I realized that oftentimes the people with brilliant ideas aren't the ones who really sell (and tell) a great story. And then there is J.K. Rowling. *Sighs*

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    1. Thanks DasNuk, and I agree that you only learn from studying the greats.... which is why I shall eat all my words and point you now to 22 rules you should actually follow... http://www.pixartouchbook.com/blog/2011/5/15/pixar-story-rules-one-version.html

      Number 5 is the hardest and most important of all.

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    2. Thanks, actually, I was reading these rules and then I came across the link to your blog. That's how it goes in interwebs world ;) But regarding the rules, you're right, I went through the Pixars I liked in my head (esp. Monsters Inc. and Wall-e)..and yes, No. 5 is a real ball-buster :) But hey, while we're at it, take a look at these,they seriously helped me out a lot - especially in times of crisis; Kurt Vonnegut's rules: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/04/03/kurt-vonnegut-on-writing-stories/

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  5. Loved this one: If you are one of those people who write poetry and feel the need to defend its lack of cinquains, clerihews or spenserian stanzas, then ask yourself first if you even know what those fucking words mean.

    and all the rest. you speak truth. this is good. but then you went off on that star wars shit and almost lost me, so i excised that entire paragraph in my data banks.

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  6. It's a matter of opinion. Wipe your pussy and contribute.

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    1. Huh? Your insult didn't even make sense m

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