New -- 2 February 2004
The Art of Writing is perpetually..
Such a fact of life does not preclude forging ahead with a whole treatise on the subject of the Art of Writing. After all, "Life is short; art is long." And this puppy is going to be a bit longer than the average!
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Because of its length, we will simply note that this essay is divided into the motivation to write and be read, following by a series of brief commentaries on the ingredients of what might be construed as artful writing techniques. I.e.
The Art of Writing
Stringing Words Together
Other Forms of Fiction
This particular Library offering is being offered on the basis that there are many who wish to write and -- perhaps inexplicably -- also desire to be read. The latter should not necessarily be construed to include being published, but such is often the case.
Unfortunately, unsolicited manuscripts do not always get read by the recipient(s). This fundamental fact of life has traditionally been impressed upon unpublished authors by genteel publishers who return great works of art without so much as a glance. Yes, I know: It's absolutely disgusting! The problem, however, is the enormous bulk of manuscripts being submitted to publishers -- in the case of one major publisher, on the order of one thousand manuscripts per day! You can see the problem.
In response to this horrendous state of affairs, a new species of human beings was created in order for authors to have their work read. This new species, Homo less-than-sapiens neanderthalis agentis, review works and inform publishers accordingly. But as time has passed, the agents themselves have become overwhelmed with the bulk of manuscripts and the authors find themselves back in the same quandary.
Whereupon in recent years, authors have turned with their embryo manuscripts to the final arbitrators, the collective known as the FRA (an acronym for Friends, Relatives, and Acquaintances). It’s as if authors must be read lest they wither away. Following on the heels of the FRA collective is the potential (not necessarily the reality) of being read via the myriad pathways of the Inter Net. There are, after all, the FRA e-mail lists!
But lo and behold, there are among the FRA (and their e-mail lists, blogs, and so forth), those who are deluged with competing activities to the extent that they too cannot find the time to read all they receive. [Thus accounting for the saying, "My e-mail basket over floweth."] And thus, sending such FRA a continuing series of episodes, chapters, essays, poems, etceteras, may constitute an example of insanity, i.e. doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. To counter such insanity, it’s time to consider what it going out prior to pushing the send button, and ultimately to measure how one's writings are being received.
A common technique to accomplish this feat is, for example, to provide to one's FRA Collective the following message, cleverly inserted into the bulk of material being sent:
Obviously, if one is currently reading this page, then it seems likely that one has been reading what has preceded and surrounded it. And equally obviously, if one is not reading this page, then either one has not reached this point yet, or will never reach it.
There is also the possibility, as incredible as it may seem to any astute, erudite and extremely wise individual reading this, that there are those among the FRA who have read the material thus far presented, but for reasons beyond imagination do not particularly want to continue to receive such wonders. It’s a sad world.
Thus we arrive at the decision time. On the one hand, if for any reason whatsoever one wishes to discontinue receiving such profound words of wisdom -- and thus display to the world one's impending ignorance, dismal tastes and sexual inadequacy -- one merely need reply to the incoming e-mail requesting to be removed from the lists. Such requests will typically be honored within the next decade and/or after receiving the fourth letter from a major law firm providing a legally enforceable cease and desist order, whichever occurs first.
On the other hand, if one desires to display their intellectual acumen, philosophical bent toward enlightenment, and sexual prowess, then one need do nothing! Simply file this e-mail with the rest, and simultaneously assume that with the modern conveniences of self-serving cookies, the following message will be sent on your behalf to the author:
Dear (Name of author)!!! This is the most delightful, stupendous, incredible work it has ever been my pleasure to read. I can’t imagine my life being complete without reading your future literary classics! Do not for a moment think that I am not convinced that this is one the momentous works of the millennia, worthy of at least a half-dozen Nobel Prizes (in Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Economics, or whatever).
Please, I beg of you: Continue sending your e-mails and missives of love to me. Thank you and bless you. Bless you, bless you, bless you!
Or something like that.
With that in mind -- i.e. your readership fully in align with your future efforts -- we might now endeavor to consider the basics of the art form -- and thereby somehow justify the delight with which your fan club will receive your work.
The Art of Writing
Writing as an art is ideally an open-ended medium of expression intended either as a more lasting form of communication, a lingering personal interaction, or as a succinct means to convey ideas and feelings to others, now and in the future. As an art form, it requires motivation (a reason to actually go to the trouble), a facility with words (wordsmithing, i.e. the brush strokes of writing), a dash of creativity, and just enough attribution (and/or plagiarism) to add spice and to suggest to the reader that the author actually reads the works of other authors!
Extremely valuable to the new writer is the inclusion of a particular attitude whenever the writer shows the end result to others. If the truth be known, a hint of arrogance is often a critical personality characteristic of a writer, as well as a devil-may-care attitude and/or any of several additional selected forms of both functional and dysfunctional personalities. For example...
“I am a monopolar depressive descended from monopolar depressives. That's how come I write so good.” -- Kurt Vonnegut
It is important to remember that such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O'Neill, John Steinbeck, and Sinclair Lewis were all certifiable alcoholics. (And we haven't even begun to talk about the literary equivalents of Vincent Van Gogh.) In effect, you don't have to be crazy to write, but it helps. As Douglas Adams has pointed out:
“First of all, realize that it's very hard, and that writing is a grueling and lonely business and, unless you are extremely lucky, badly paid as well. You had better really, really, really want to do it. Next you have to write something. Unless you are committed to novel writing exclusively, I suggest you start out writing for radio. It's still a relatively easy medium to get into because it pays so badly. But it is a great medium for writers because it relies so much on the imagination.”
The best writing often occurs only when the not writing is more trouble than the writing. Whether it's a matter of alleviating an internal pressure to blow off steam or simply some striving need to communicate one's thoughts in a visual form, the motivational aspect of writing becomes a minor obstacle while the emotional content becomes the flavor of the piece and the icing on the cake. In fact, an author's emotional state is often transparent in the writing regardless of the actual words and how they are strung together. The state-of-mood of the author often comes through loud and clear.
But writing is more than just blowing off steam; it is also a means of designing one's future, of Creating Reality in a very personal manner. It is an affirmation, in the sense used by Evan Hodkins where he has defined an “affirmation” as “an appointment with one's future self.” In the same fashion, writers often see great simplifications and insightful visions of what might be in a more perfect world -- something which they actually create in the form of a written description. As Kurt Vonnegut has noted:
"Artists are people who say, ‘I can't fix my country or my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly, I cam make this square of canvas, this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay, or these twelve bars of music, exactly what they ought to be.”
Motivation in writing is thus often a means of alleviating the frustration of seeing what others apparently don't see, solutions that are so simple if only others would open their eyes and see the blindingly obvious! [How's that for a strange juxtaposition of words?]. The writing is often to convince them of just this fact, and thus one writes it all down in a cunning and convincing fashion, presenting ideas which solve the world's problems and require only that someone gives up their Neanderthal thinking in order to understand.
Structurally, writing consists of the basic skills of arranging words and thoughts in a semi-permanent form for the benefit of others. “...a daunting blend of perfectionism and a terror of failing in his quest, as he liked to phrase it, ‘a hundred thousand words in a cunning order'.” [Douglas Adams] Writing can always be therapy, vanity, and/or egotistical in the extreme. But when others benefit more than the author, then it's the art form of writing -- it's the reason for all of the fuss.
As an art form, writing is constrained -- the so-called “curse of the Kali Yuga” -- by a set of symbols upon whose consistency there has been reached a consensus. For practical reasons, these symbols must be recognizable and easily formed. Various languages may use the same set of symbols or rely instead on a distinctively different set. Ideally -- from the viewpoint of modern typing, word processing, and the like -- it is better to have a limited number of such alphabetical symbols. This is true in most alphabets such as Greek or Hebrew, but ancient Egyptian and Chinese use a much larger set of symbols -- therefore making them difficult to computerize.
Too many accent marks can also doom a language to non-business usage, if only because the typist must continually retrace the typing in order to insert additional marks on the page. In fact most languages which have traditionally used accent marks in profusion have begun to evolve to a simpler version. Writing is no longer -- at least in the mainstream -- a form of artistic handwriting.
Each language has its own very intriguing characteristics -- including the power of its alphabet. The Hebrew language, for example, uses only consonants. Inasmuch as vowels are the stuff of emotions: aaaaaaa..., eeeeee..., ooooooo..., iiiiiiii..., uuuuuu... [sounds vaguely erotic], one might wonder if there is a lack of emotion in the Hebrew language. This actually makes a modicum of sense in that law is often thought of as one of the greater gifts of the Jewish heritage. Furthermore, it is law which seldom if ever endorses emotion as a principle or valid argument -- notwithstanding the fact that emotion is often manipulated covertly and inappropriately in courtrooms.
Despite some patriarchal pretensions, the invention of alphabetical letters is usually credited to a Goddess -- and not a God. “All letters were originally sacred symbols -- the literal meaning of hieroglyph. In Egypt the art of writing was the gift of the Goddess Isis, Maat, Menos, or Seshat; in Rome, that of the Goddess Carmenta or the Fata Scribunda (writer - Fate); in Scandinavia, that of the Norns as Schreiberinnen. “writing-women”; in Babylon, that of the Guises or Fates.”  The Sumerian Inanna (aka Isis) was also responsible for providing The Me to her city of Uruk (the gift including writing).
“Written letters were symbols of Logos power, that is, the power to create the world by means of words. That is why the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet appeared on the necklace of skulls worn by Kali Ma, perhaps the oldest Goddess of Creation. These letters were matrika, “the mothers,” which brought all things into being when Kali formed them into words. The Logos doctrine is still extant in Christian theology, though the original idea of creation by the Word has been made more abstract to conceal its primitive naivety. In the third century A.D. Jewish mystics spoke of the biblical smith Bezaleel as an expert on alphabetical wizardry: he ‘knew how to combine the letters by which heaven and earth were created.'” 
The alphabets of Egyptian, Arabic, Greek, and so forth all seemed to have their own very specific symbolism. The Hebrew letters, for example, are derived from the shape of a cupped hand and its various projections onto a flat surface. In the process, the Hebrew alphabet provides a Geometry of Alphabets . Even English can be said to derive the ingredients of its alphabet from symbols. For example :
A -- the cone, mountain, pyramid, First Cause or birth
B -- mother's breasts
C -- the moon
D -- day, diamond, brilliance
E -- the sun
F -- fire of life
G -- creative power
H -- Gemini, dualism, the threshold
I -- number one, selfhood, the axis mundi
J -- tree and root
K -- connections
L -- power arising from the earth
M -- undulating mountains
N -- a serpentine path
O -- perfection, completion
P -- the staff
Q -- the sun tethered to earth (rising or setting)
R -- support
S -- the serpent
T -- the double ax, hammer, or cross indicating conflict or sacrifice
U -- the chain
V -- convergence, a receptacle
W -- water waves
X -- the cross of light, union of two worlds
Y -- the three-way crossroads, meaning choices and decisions, and
Z -- the lighting (destroyer)
[Betcha you didn't know that! Or why "W" is pronounced "double U" when it's actually a double "V".]
Wordsmithing may be thought of as the exercise in grouping the alphabetic symbols of a language or culture in such a manner as to convey specific meaning. Such specification thus limits the impact of the symbols, which in and of themselves may contain greater nuances and levels of meaning than however many words. A picture (symbol), for example, is often worth a thousand words.
Symbolism is in fact the more fundamental means of communication, while writing has the desirable -- and also the undesirable ability -- to limit and/or constrict symbols so as to obtain precise meanings, meanings which can be easily predicted. Such predictability is essentially due to the fear of the unknown, as in the comfort factor of adhering to the “letter of the law” -- or the letter of the words. Attempts to reduce the fear factor are done by eliminating ambiguity and vagueness. Such limitations are often desirable -- but must be recognized as unnecessarily limiting in many cases.
Wordsmithing requires a facility with vocabulary, an understanding of the consensus meaning of words, the use of context, a hint of precision in sentence formulation, and the ability to use a variety of literary aspects, including, for example, the use of synonyms and metaphors and other devices or writing styles.
Synonyms are words with similar but distinct meanings. Their use, unfortunately, is often confused with the talent to finish a crossword puzzle. Crossword puzzles are typically not a sign of wordsmithing, however, as there is often the problem perceived by some purists -- such as writers for the Atlantic Monthly -- in the distinction and precision of the meanings of words being lost in the pursuit of obtaining 7 Down.
For example, what is a seven letter word meaning “snake”. How about “serpent”? Works great in the puzzle, but not in writing if one realizes that writers almost never refers to “a serpent in the grass” or “the snake in the Garden.” Snake and Serpent have distinctive differences. A serpent, for example, is often considered to be larger. Such subtle distinctions are lost or ignored in most crossword puzzles -- even if one could easily construct a crossword which did not require such abbreviated clues -- instead of the kind which lead to variations in precise meaning. The problem is that very brief clues tend to require the use of synonym-like clues.
A great deal of wordsmithing also involves using variety and diversity in the writing in order to prevent the kind of boredom which arises from a repetition of the same word over and over -- even when the word is in each instance the most appropriate word to use. It is recognized in Music therapy, for example, that a clever musical phrase will sound wonderful, but if repeated over and over will rapidly become an insidious form of torture. (Thus the need in music for "variations on a theme", or “development of a musical motif".) The same sort of problem can arise in writing.
Excessive repetition of the same word, fortunately, can be alleviated somewhat by recognizing the existing vocabularies have their own variations on a theme. Take, for example, something as basic as the word, group. In describing a group of... whatever, there is a host of possibilities, ranging from a pride of lions, an exaltation of larks, a crash of rhinoceroses, to a convocation of eagles, and so forth and so on.
Then there is Etymology and the wholesale creation of words. Etymology is the assumed derivation of a word -- many of which are humorous, strange, and bewildering -- and many of which provide a much better understanding of a word and/or the culture that created it. The latter includes such gems as “lunatic” being originally referring to someone who worshiped the Moon (and when such worship was considered as legitimate as worshipping the mother of a crucified man). Another intriguing word is “virgin” which originally meant “beholden to no man”. There was no hint of a lack of sexuality in being a virgin when the word was first coined. This is made clear by the fact that Aphrodite was considered to be a “virgin goddess.”
Meanwhile supervision was at one time considered to be the possession of a vision of super or superior quality. Cliffhangers were, of course, originally a serial end with someone hanging from a cliff. A threshold was a board below a doorway which assisted in keeping the thresh (straw, hay, etcetera) from being scattered out of the building while the door was open. And so forth and so on.
Many words are creations of necessity. In the time of Shakespeare, the number of words in the English language increased by about 50%. This was due to two powerful motivators. The first was the King James translation of the Bible -- and the fact that the English language of the time did not have words which conveyed the same meaning as that of the original form of the language: tongues such as Aramaic, Greek, or what have you. New words -- e.g. “host” -- had to be contrived in order to have a valid translation -- and even then the meaning came to take on meanings quite different from the original version. A second motivator was that Shakespeare in his quest to create rhyme, often had to create a new word.
The latter might be called “dramatic license”... or some such equivalent. If you're speaking of mediocrity in government, for example, you might want to create the word, “mediocracy.” It's meaning is almost intuitively obvious. “Grok” is also a nice word, one coined by Robert Heinlein (look it up!), and McJobs  is the kind of new creation which drives at least one major corporation to distraction. [This is always one of the higher callings of authors -- to drive major corporations to distraction.] Some other intriguing possibilities includes the misuse of drugs transforming the word “pharmaceutical” into “pharmacidal”, or the combining of “health” and “athletics” into “healthletics.”
Politics is the premier example of shading or diverting truth through allegedly factual content. For example, the word “tax reform” is politically defined as “any change in the tax code that you favor.” To “simplify” the tax code means that if the same amount of money is to be raised, one person's simplification is another's increased tax. A “tax subsidy” is any deduction or exemption that you oppose, while a “tax incentive” is any tax complication of which you approve.
An extension of Etymology would be the Derivation of Phrases -- a strange and bewildering art in and of itself.
Swami Beyondananda is notorious for analyzing words for their interior meanings. He writes, for example, “These are challenging times which call for Emerge-n-See measures.” He also wants to conduct a “Blisskrieg and wage all out peace.” Then there is the creation of an “alter-native economy”, the conduct of the “God Will Games”, and the practice of “Fun-Shui” for creating playful beauty everywhere. From his view point, “the laugh you save may be your own.”
This brings up the multiple use of words -- the fodder for puns! Puns are the bane of many less worthy illiterates, but as Fred Allen is reputed to have said, “Boiling in oil is too good for those who make puns. They should be drawn and quoted.” There is, of course, more than puns at stake here. There is also the most functional word in the English Language, i.e. a single word which can be used in a blithering array of different ways. And that word is xxxx.
Puns are also one of the glorious manifestations of creativity, and are thus highly reccommended for those wishing to enhance their creativity quotient.
Despite the tendency for the wholesale creation of words and phrases -- accelerated in modern times with such gems as "blogs" and “blue light specials” -- the fact remains that we often use precious little of the possibilities. For example there is the phrase:
“And you have of the will to be it.”
This strange phrase is simply a memory device to remember the nine words that constitute 25% of the written English language. The curious thing about these nine words, is that they do not include “I” or other personal pronouns, nor do they include such gems as “thanks”, “please” or other forms of social graces. The only article is “the” (no “a”), and the only word on the list with substantial usage as both verb and subject is “will”. It's a strange language.
Stringing Words Together
The three essential ingredients in stringing words together are: Organization, organization, and organization. Any end product of writing, for example, should be:
capable of being read at first glance,
capable of being read aloud,
capable of being remembered,
capable of being understood in context, and
capable of being read between the lines.
The first requirement -- particularly in an age where timing is of the essence -- is tantamount to saying that anything requiring a second look just in order to understand it has not been said well. This also implies no run-on sentences, where a reader can run out of breath (and patience) before getting to the end. There should be a flow, the kind where the reader floats down the river effortlessly -- no paddling required.
Being read aloud easily is also an excellent test of writing. Punctuation and breathing, for example, are tightly interrelated. A comma represents a short breath, a period a longer one, an exclamation mark or question mark dictating the rising tone of ending words. Having a novel read aloud is not a great deal different from writing for the stage, movies, or television. Dialogue is inherently brief in such situations, and an easy flow is fundamental if only to ensure that the material can be spoken. Besides, one does not want to eliminate the possibility of Books on Tapes for one's literary efforts!
The idea of someone's writing being remembered is also significant. Brevity in this context is essential, as well as the hint of lyrics -- succinct and poetic. For example:
“Done that, been there, bought the T-Shirt”.
“Uniqueness implies value.”
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but where you can send your money.” [ Laugher is a clever technique as well!]
Writing, in this context, is often about putting “Body English” on one's string of words. Some of the better “Body English” comes from Kurt Vonnegut. For example:
“Nothing wrecks any kind of love more effectively than the discovery that your previously acceptable behavior has become ridiculous.” [3 - page 28]
“If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don't have nerve enough to be homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.” [3 - page 37]
“The most popular story you can tell is about a good-looking couple having a really swell time copulating outside wedlock, and having to quit for one reason or another while doing it is still a novelty.” [3 - page 80]
“There is a planet in the Solar System where the people are so stupid they didn't catch on for a million years that there was another half to their planet. They didn't figure that out until five hundred years ago! Only five hundred years! And yet they are calling themselves Homo sapiens.” [3 - page 88]
“In real life, as in Grand Opera, arias only make hopeless situations worse.” [3 - page 111]
“The Three Horsemen of the Oncological Apocalypse, Surgery, Chemotherapy, and Radiation.” [3 - page 128]
“He was constantly reminded of how startlingly different a place the world was when viewed from a point only three feet to the left.” [4 - page 233]
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” 
The latter two items are from Douglas Adams , the brilliantly creative writer of the five book trilogy, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy .
A fourth criteria or good writing is the ability to be understood in context. This is where organization is important and where the flow of information needs to be both logical and rational. There is also the need to not say everything. Too much information becomes disinformation by confusing the simpler message.
The fifth criteria is the message between the words. Multiple levels implies a classic. That is, where one can read a book at elementary, intermediate, and advanced levels. Any book arrives in many forms for many different people and for the same people at different points in their life. This is where the re-reading becomes an asset.
There is also the very strange phenomenon of when one writes in an emotional state -- be it anger, love, bliss, high on drugs, of whatever -- this emotional state comes through to the reader from the writing, regardless of the apparent objectiveness of the words and how they are strung together. In other words, the most diplomatic message will be seen as an angry retort if written in the heat of anger. This does not imply that people will hate the work, for they may be in the same anger emotion themselves, and thus may easily identify with the writer. In some cases, it's sort of sick form of bonding.
Metaphors are also a useful tool, albeit in “Metaphors be with you”, there is the hint of what can go wrong when using this literary technique. A metaphor is, however, potentially useful as a statement which allows greater latitude in describing a thing or situation. It is typically employed to suggest a symbolical picture in order to better clarify one's intended meaning. Sometimes it works; and sometimes it doesn't!
Three critical ingredients of good writing are: content, organization, and style.
Motivationally, if you don't have anything to say, don't say anything. (It's the equivalent of “Live your life as if you cannot speak.”)
If you do have something to say, then say it in such a way as to facilitate the understanding by others of the meaning and power of your message.
If you want to move/motivate someone, increase the power and intensity -- the memorability of what you've written -- by imbuing it with emotion and a personal style.
In the area of content, one often distinguishes between fiction and non-fiction. The fact that vast amounts of non-fiction turn out to be, in reality, fiction does not deter from the fact that writing what is allegedly factual material is distinct from letting the mind wander into new and interesting places. Curiously, the more factual a fiction piece is -- such as having real people consistent within their characterization, or within a known situation or historical event -- the more factual it seems. Simultaneously, some of the better written factual content information is replete with all manner of fictional development and outright fabrication. Politics again comes to mind in this regard.
The National Enquirer has an interesting take on this subject. Their rule is to always begin with a kernel of truth -- a truth hopefully well known and accepted by the readers. Once the credibility issue is addressed with a whiff of truth, then the writer is free to speculate on what might arise from the initial conditions. The speculation is, at best, fiction and fantasy -- and at worse, intentional distortions, lies, and libel. But the initial hint of truth suggests to the reader that the rest of the story is true as well. This does not imply a healthy ability for Discrimination in the average reader's repertoire, but it is sufficiently common with the Media in general -- and politics in almost all cases -- that we can conclude the National Enquirer's technique to be demonstrably effective!
Fundamental to content and any presentation of facts is to first know the subject; i.e., a writer must do his or her homework. This requires a LOT of reading across a broad range of sources. It also requires discrimination in terms of what one accepts as truth.
In this regard, it's worth noting the difference between an event and an interpretation. An event is a fact, the precise description of what happened. An interpretation is the coloring of the same event. For example, an event is saying that someone said, “Hey babe, nice body.” Calling it a male chauvinist remark is the interpretation. Meanwhile, a third party believing what the other person said, is also an interpretation -- in this case an interpretation as to the truthfulness of the person reporting on the event. [This is why hearsay evidence is inadmissible in court, in that it requires an interpretation of what someone else said, including the interpretation by the witness as to the truthfulness of what was related.]
It is a curious tradition in journalism that journalists (one hesitates to call them writers) never write their own personal opinion or interpretation of an event (other than when specifically constructing editorials). Instead, they depend entirely upon what someone else has said. Read any portion of a news story and it will be replete with “it has been reported...” so and so “claimed...”, an (alleged) “witness said that they saw...” and so forth. Reporters almost never offer their own opinions directly, but shade the news to their personal agendas by simply reporting a particular selection of viewpoints. Even when a quote derives from an opposing source, such a quote can be made to appear ridiculous -- the journalist continuing to convey their chosen interpretation/meaning in whatever means available. This form of reporting is, of course, dishonest, but it's what they do.
An old saying is that: "Those who do, do; those who can't, teach." One can add to this that: "Those who can neither do nor teach, report."
It should be noted that there is on the one hand: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and on the other hand, true and accurate. Note that the latter aspect -- the only requirement for corporations -- is to not lie outright, while as the same time not be required to tell the whole truth. This is a far cry from fair play, where when portions of the whole truth are left out, an individual (not a corporation) can be guilty of fraud. [There is even the "corporate veil" to protect the individuals within a corporation from their lies, deceits, and swindles.]
In non-fictional writing, it is customary and essential (i.e., the “whole truth”) to note sources and reference materials, attribute quotes, and so forth. Plagiarism is simply not acceptable. Nor is the old adage from Tom Lehrer: "Do not shade your eyes. Plagiarize." [Tom was perhaps being sarcastic.]
In fictional writing, there is a wide variety of clever means of putting forth one's ideas. These include novels, short stories, poetry, screenplays, teleplays, stage plays, and the ever increasingly popular Inter Net .
There is an old antidote -- probably not true, but I will use it anyway -- in which someone once asked Ludwig Von Beethoven how to write a symphony. Beethoven responded by suggesting that the fellow first try his hand at writing a shorter piece, such as a sonata or an overture. The enterprising fellow, however, noted that Beethoven had not started that way but had written a symphony early on in his career. To which Beethoven replied, “Yes, but I didn't have to ask anyone how to write a symphony.”
It might be said that the same applies to writing short stories and novels. First the short stories, and then the novels. There is also the investment in time to consider, prior to one discovering whether or not anyone would want to read such writing.
[Incidentally, most writers consider a critique from someone reading their material in the form of a one word “interesting” to be the height of insult. The thinking is that “interesting” more likely applies to the fascinating concept that someone actually wrote such crap! Accordingly, it might be wise to come up with something better in the way of a critical review. Like, for example: “Last night, Luvetsky played Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff lost.”]
As for the essential basics of writing a short story, one can turn to Kurt Vonnegut who was justifiably famous for his ability to write short stories. (And these include his novels which were often a scattering of short stories cleverly bundled together). Vonnegut's prescription was that:
“in real life... people don't change, don't learn anything from their mistakes, and don't apologize. In a short story, they have to do at least two out of the three of these things, or you might was well throw it away.”
A recent survey was conducted in Great Britain in order to determine the top 100 favorite novels of all time. Not wholly surprising -- considering the timing of the movies -- was The Lord of the Rings. In second place, however, was something of a surprise: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Meanwhile, Gone with the Wind was like 19th!
Harry Potter and the... whatever, meanwhile, did not score as well, but probably because there was the choice of four (now six) different novels, which tended to split the vote. The curious fact is nonetheless that Hitchhiker's Guide and Harry Potter... are enormously popular. Any budding novelist might wonder why. What do these two novels (and even the Lord of the Rings to a lesser extent) have in common?
The most fascinating common element (to me, at any rate, as per my interpretation) is that in each case there are no limits, no boundaries, nothing which cannot be done or undone in some fashion or another. In Harry Potter... there is almost always some magical spell, potion, or incantation that will accomplish a wizard's aims -- for good or ill! In Hitchhikers' Guide, time and space are only convenient book-keeping artifacts and can be wielded on a whim. Nothing is impossible in these stories -- provided only that the heroes and villains acknowledge the possibility of all things. From an improbability propulsion system to a time bending necklace, there are no limits -- and this concept is enormously popular to the reader.
It may in fact be so enormously popular because there are --in reality -- no limits and we need only believe in order to manifest any and everything we desire, to create reality in any form we like. I.e.,
“Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” [Mark 11:24]
Most novels do not fantasize in such an unconstrained manner, and instead tend to concentrate on character studies. The appeal here is that if one can identify with the hero and heroine (or the villain), then in some small measure one can find themselves in circumstances far better than one's dull, drab, dreary life.
The key to character novels, however, is that inevitably the suspense in the story is the dysfunctional nature of one or more of the players. Oft times, this becomes tedious, and when the novel hits the movie screen, all of the inner motivations are replaced with really exciting car chases -- filled with blasts, explosions, sound and fury (and of course, signifying nothing). The really good news in such films is that the dysfunctionals tend to either get more functional or less so. (At least, it's progress.)
Meanwhile, back at the literary ranch, there is one form of novels -- seemingly at the other extreme of the so-called fantasy novels (or just fantastic novels!). These are the historical novels. Here one is seemingly constrained by what actually happened -- even when there is considerable room for imagination. Such constraints are not too binding, however, in that we might recall:
“Come, weigh me the weight of the fire
or measure me the measure of the wind
or recall me the day that is past.” -- IV Ezra
A fundamental truth is that history is written by the winners or survivors. It is always written as their version, their interpretation of events -- and is as much propaganda in many cases as a simple retelling of events. Because of this, historical fiction can have the advantage of promoting one's own view of what happened, and simultaneously allowing for a degree of dramatic license in the presentation. Most historical events, for example, do not have all the ingredients of suspense, plot, climax, and so forth. But they can be told in such a way as to accomplish the author's purpose(s).
The recently very popular and successful novel, The Da Vinci Code, is a case in point. The book is clearly a work of fiction in terms of the modern day characters and sequence of events. The basis of the novel, however, is one based on considerably scholarly research into the legacy of Mary Magdalen and her supporters, which include Leonardo da Vinci. The novel may be said to be simply a vehicle for presenting the esoteric (“for the few”) mysteries of ancient lore which make Jesus Christ's alleged marriage to Mary Magdalen a step up for Jesus. (I.e. Mary was the more notable and royal personage at the time of the gospels' saga.) Furthermore, the research and basic facts presented by the author, Dan Brown, have all the ingredients of being historically accurate and a true description of what might be deemed History 009.
Strictly speaking, The Da Vinci Code is less an historical novel and more of a novel using a hopefully accurate rendering of what might be better described as "herstory". The more fundamental historical novel is set in the very history it purports to describe and in this manner has the potential of conveying a lot of history in an "up close and personal" way. Classics include such historical novels as Mary Renault's The King Must Die, M. M. Kaye's Far Horizons, Gary Jenning's Aztec, and James Clavell's Shogun; all of which provide unique glimpses into historical times, but with characters (functional or otherwise) with which one can identify.
The biggest difficulty with any kind of novel, however, is getting it published. This is due in large part to the fact that one never really know what people are going to like in the way of fiction. This is the reasons so few new novels by new authors are published. Such forays into mercantile are fraught with peril in that no one really knows what to expect from a truly new book of fiction.
Other Forms of Fiction
Poetry is basically just terse prose. It is also, perhaps, the most misused form of literature, in that it can be so bad! Theoretically, it ranges from brilliant to extremely dismal, but there seems to be a tendency toward considerably less brilliant and a great deal more dismal than is accounted for in other forms of fiction. The problem is that it takes so few words to accomplish one's task, and there is a tendency to accept too easily whatever comes down the mental path without considerable thought.
One exception to this is the brilliantly conceived and extraordinary masterpiece of Kahil Gibran: The Prophet. This is easily one of the best pieces of literature on the planet, finding its way into everything from marriage vows to psychological treatises. It was conceived and written in a loving and laborious, time-consuming fashion, and as a result it is beautifully done
An equally wondrous work -- and a favorite of the author -- is one of Rumi's beauties:
This being human is a guest-house, every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Wow! Shades of Wisdom and all manner of brilliance.
Meanwhile, screenplays, teleplays, and stage plays have their own special properties, one of the primary aspects being the need for format. Producers, directors and the like have some very funny feelings about what they will bother to read, and one of them is that they want the presentation just so. Screenplays and teleplays are also notorious in requiring a minimum of dialogue (or perhaps more accurately, very efficient dialogue as a means of moving the story along), combined with considerable visual action.
Stage plays are less visual -- if only because of the technical difficulties of presenting special effects in a live performance -- but even there the dialogue must be polished and honed. The essential attribute of "performed literature" is that the perceiver does not have the luxury of stopping in midstream to think about the ideas and words being offered. There are no instant replays! Time is of the essence, and in many respects, the viewer must be able to comprehend the meanings at a rapid rate.
This results in most (screen and tele) plays being written so as to allow an above average twelve year old to readily grasp what is happening. This fundamental fact which so severely impacts the average viewer is demonstrated in a Zits cartoon strip (by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman) in which Jeremy has just received his creative writing paper with a grade of C minus-minus. His teacher's comments were:
"Pure pap and dreck! Incomplete story, implausible characters and a plot that wouldn't challenge a third grader."
While his girl friend commiserated with him, Jeremy took exception,,
"No, no! I think he's saying that I has promise as a screenwriter."
His friend's comment was: "Score!"
Obviously, this cartoon strip is its own form of great literature!
Making an art out of literature does require careful attention to detail, even if the form is radically at variance with traditional formats. The Inter Net, for example, can just as easily delve into literary pursuits as Zits, but in fact is seldom associated with literature, the reason being that time is of the essence and in most cases, there is not even attention given to grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Some of the material appears more in the form of a train of thought, with no subsequent effort being made to retrace one's steps and clean up the download of entrails from the rain forest of the writer's bewildered mind. Unfortunately for such offerings, one rule used by many readers of Inter Net material is that e-mails which show every forwarded address in its history can be justifiably deleted immediately before reading. The theory is that if no one bothered to clean up the mess, then they could not have thought it was particularly important, and thus it's probably not the worth the trouble to read.
In fiction, characters are a big deal. Many publishers and critics consider that a poor novel can make it if only the characters are truly interesting and are developed to the nth degree. This character development is not just things that happen to you in order to develop your character, but instead is the idea that somewhere along the line, the hero, villain, and/or bus boy will learn something, change their life in some manner, recognize the futility of their previously evil ways, or will pay for their crimes. This is in spite of the fact -- as Kurt Vonnegut has noted: “In real life... people don't change, don't learn anything from their mistakes, and don't apologize.” There is also some concern as to whether or not there is any real justice in life to begin with.
Many characters in novels are admittedly stereotypes. This is not necessarily a flaw in the writing. Quite often, it's a case of either use stereotypes (a vast improvement over High Fidelity) or being forced to explain at length the non-stereotype. In many cases, there is simply neither the time nor the motivation to have every character in a story a truly unique individual. Take, for example, the definition of heaven and hell and its use of national stereotypes to illustrate the concept.
“Heaven is where the Germans are the auto mechanics, the French are the cooks, the English are the policemen, the Italians are the lovers, and the Swiss are in overall charge. Hell is where the French are the auto mechanics, the German are the police, the English are the cooks, the Swiss are the lovers, and the Italians are in overall charge.”
Without stereotypes, this story just flat doesn't work. Nor does the delightful webpage entitled "A Tale of Two Cows." Check it out and see if you don't agree.
Character stereotypes can also include variations in psychological profiles (e.g. the Myers-Briggs or any of various archetypes) . In the case of archetypes, there are some intriguing possibilities as in the story Heir Apparent, which uses roughly a hundred such archetypes. In yet another style, one can always use the Child's viewpoint. This allows for a lot of explanation of material without sounding preachy or condescending.
In thinking about the art of writing, one might want to take either or both of:
The Time Traveler Challenge, and/or the
Fahrenheit 451 Choice.
The gist of the first challenge is to do just as the hero did in H. G. Wells' sci-fi novel, The Time Traveler, and to select three books to take into the future where ALL literature and technology has been essentially lost. The second challenge is in order to avoid the loss of literature from the burning of books -- as in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (the title is the temperature at which paper burns) -- one selects a single book which one memorizes and thus retains for the benefit of future generations.
For Updates, see also the Halexandria Forum
(And for some special insights, see the DoK)
What are your choices?
 Barbara G. Walker, The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, Harper San Francisco, New York, 1988.
 McJobs is any menial, entrance-level, fast-food style, service-oriented work, which provides minimal worthwhile experience -- other than the experiential lesson to avoid like the plague such jobs in the future.
 Kurt Vonnegut, TimeQuake, G. P. Putnam's Son, New York, 1997.
 Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt, Harmony Books, New York, 2002.
Language Education Communications, Education, Health
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Etymology Symbolism The Art of Reading