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I’m Still Here For an Argument

I haven’t given up on the argument posts, don’t worry. My blogging has had to slow down due to a confluence of events: kitchen renovations, a lengthy bout with a stomach bug, and general business. I also picked up a copy of Stephen Toulmin’s original book on the philosophy of arguments in which he introduced some of the concepts I’ll be talking about, and I think I’d like to finish it and then revise my posts.

Also, I have an exciting bit of news: One of my SF/mysteries was accepted for publication! I’ll pass along the details of how you can get to read it in two weeks.

Finally, a request. The story I’m working on is really lacking in the zombie action department. I just don’t write action scenes well. So… who does? Not necessarily zombie action (though that’d be a plus) but who in general do you think I should read and learn from on this front?

 
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Posted by on 18 March, 2011 in Reading, Writing

 

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I’m Here For an Argument, Part 2

In my previous post on argument, I talked about what I saw as one basic division in story arguments. I suggested that there were two basic kinds of arguments being made in fiction: where there is a point being put forward, and where the story is being used to explore multiple sides of an argument without really coming to a conclusion.

Who Makes The Argument?

Now I’m going to confuse things further and make another coarse division along the dimension of the form of the fictional argument in terms not of what kind of argument is being made, but how the story puts ideas forward:

  1. The characters make the argument.
  2. The world makes the argument.

In the first group, the characters, their actions, and their identities represent the argument being made. The world is mere fact. Think Goofus and Gallant, for example, or certain characters from Dickens, whose very names indicate the sort of people they are and instruct the reader (subtly or otherwise) what to think of the things those characters do. In Oedipus Rex, circumstances may conspire against the characters like crazy, but all the characters are free to act.

In To Build a Fire, Jack London states pretty much straight-up, “after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner” and goes into excruciating detail about exactly why that is, using a believable character. That part about the believable character is important to the argument: If anyone is going to prove that dictum false, the unimaginative, self-sufficient character in that story would. The argument would not have been as strong if the character were a child or an obvious idiot; it would have left the reader skeptical. The world in that story may have been at its harshest, but it acted fairly and predictably in response to what he did.

In the second group, there are the characters and their actions just as before… but somehow the laws of physics, human nature, probability, and just generally the events beyond the control of the characters all conspire to make things turn out the way the author wants in terms of the argument. I don’t mean so much Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “dark and stormy night” in Paul Clifford, where conveniently bad weather was enlisted to set the tone. Think instead Atlas Shrugged: whatever you may think of the very obvious argument being put forth, Ayn Rand enlists the world to help make that argument. Her characters go off to the mountains and the rest of society falls apart on cue and can’t get up. More subtly, human emotions in her story also seem to obey the needs of her argument: when Taggart’s affections switch from Rearden to Galt, the reactions of the people involved seem curiously muted. *

Or at the extreme, think of the Wizard of Oz, which is reputed to be an allegory about the switch to the gold standard. All the details of Oz, by that reasoning, are winks and nods to various aspects of an argument about monetary policy: the yellow brick road takes you to a fairy land, the silver slippers bring you home to good old Kansas, yada yada. The characters in the story merely react — or even ignore the argument being made in favor of being entertainingly distracting from the point. (I don’t actually buy that argument that the WoO was such a thing, by the way, but it’s still a good example.)

Think too of what it means to Neo to be The One in the movie The Matrix. In the first part of the movie, the assertion is made about Neo by other characters, and still other characters disagree or are ambivalent, but the world is silent on the subject. He gets beat up, and we cheer. Then in the latter part of the movie, the world weighs in: “Yeah… Dude’s totally The One.” So he lives, and we’re sad. (Then there’s two more movies and we’re really sad)

In that example, if the argument is about the nature of faith, the argument is very different when the world makes an argument by picking a side. If, on the other hand, the argument is about the nature of responsibility, then I think that the world really hasn’t picked a side, it’s just changing the conditions for the argument: first, what is your responsibility if you don’t know whether you’re The One? Then, what is your responsibility if you do know?

As with the question of kind of argument in Part I, the division here is also actually more of a continuum: My Jack London example is stronger, for example, if I admit that the world is conspiring with him just a little to make those arguments, especially that tree full of snow. Luck is a player here: I’ve said elsewhere as a rule of thumb that if the novel’s protagonist benefits from lucky breaks, the reader may feel cheated. But when making an argument, something that is bad for the protagonist and ramps up tension in wonderful ways, may be a convenient cheat in terms of an underlying argument. There is potentially a tension between the needs of the story and the needs of an argument being made. What’s narratively useful may undermine an argument, and vice versa: the desire to make an argument can wreck a story, as Count Tolstoy demonstrated. We’ll address this further, later.

It is also worth noting that people who are real partisans of an argument will be resistent to the suggestion that the world is helping make the argument. It can be seen as a slur on an author to say that in order to make their arguments they must misrepresent human nature. People who really dig objectivism may object to my characterization above about Atlas Shrugged; they may say, “But wait, my good sir! You have erred!” (I said they “may” say that, I didn’t say they would) “If the titans of industry really did take their belongings and go on strike, then society would surely collapse in precisely the manner described!” This leads to an important point: where on this axis a story lies may depend in no small part on whether the reader agrees with the foundations of the argument that the author is making. In this case, Rand and I failed to achieve agreement on what can be taken as a given about human nature, and as a result I find her argument less compelling. When I discuss the concept of stasis, we’ll revisit this issue.

On the subject of partisans, though, the subject came up in the comments of the last post of authorial intent: can a story make an argument by accident? I think so, yes, in a number of ways, just as a politician can stand up and wind up convincing the crowd of utterly unintended things. (Be proud of me, I resisted some serious temptation right there. As should you in the comments, please.) Unconscious assumptions can come through, the reader can interpret subtle or unclear hints in an unintended way (or even interpret things like names or word choice as a kind of code), or the writer can just argue badly. For example, I’ve written a short story only to be told by a beta reader that one of the character names was a slur in Portuguese: rereading with that in mind, the story came off very differently! So this is something that’s important to be aware of, that it’s easy for the reader to see an argument where none is intended. Other than discussing authorial intent a little later once I’ve thought about it some more, I’m going to steer clear of the accidental argument, at least until I have something more intelligent to say on the subject.

This brings an end to Part II. Thank you, everyone who commented in or linked to Part I! In Part III I’m going to bring these two dimensions together, briefly, then get on with the subject of argument parts in future parts.

* I don’t mean plot-induced stupidity here, necessarily, where people do things because if they don’t the author is stuck and the plot can’t move forward. The plot to Atlas Shrugged really would have worked just fine if Taggart had stayed with Rearden — it is Rand’s argument about how attraction ought to work that would have fallen flat. This is a choice, then: is the story subordinate to the argument, or is the argument subordinate to the story?

 
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Posted by on 11 February, 2011 in Writing

 

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Typing vs. Handwriting, Writing Profiles

A perennial subject among the writers I know is whether it is better to write by hand or to type. This post in particular was prompted by my reading this post about some of the quantitative differences between writing longhand or by computer. There’s some interesting stuff in there, and in the paper it’s based on.

Personally, I do some mixture of both handwriting and typing: most of my notes are by hand, in my notebook. I’ll write individual scenes by hand as well, but I’m finding that (unless I’m seriously blocked) I prefer to type.

There are additional benefits to each. Marko Kloos advocates for handwriting better than I can in terms of just getting things done (Money quote: “The notebook is a one-trick pony, but it’s a fantastic trick: putting words down without distraction or endless on-screen corrective sentence noodling.”) but I find that it’s also useful for slowing me down and making me think. I’ve been writing out my most recent short story in a notebook I bought from Borders specifically for that purpose: prose on the right hand side in pen, notes on the left hand side in pencil. It has worked pretty well so far, and while I’m a little unhappy with some of what’s there, I can just make a note on the left and tango on.

There are benefits to typing, though, too. My writing process is often highly non-linear: I skip around a lot, adding a bit to one scene, then going on to another, then back-filling. I can think of only one story I’ve written that I wrote straight from beginning to end, and it was 700 words long. Even there, I knew what the ending was going to be, and it was only the short length that prevented me going and writing those sentences first. Part of this process has been the discovery of Scrivener — before then I either tried in vain to put the whole story in one long document, or I broke it up over multiple documents, then juggled those.

The other nice thing about typing something out is that it becomes easier to radically re-cast it so that I can instantly read my prose in a new light. I frequently write in Times New Roman, then proofread in Courier (though maybe I should switch to Comic Sans?)

The Van Waes and Schellens paper* from the blog post above covers the handwriting vs. typing subject with an interesting experiment, which is summarized admirably in that blog. But it also has a discussion of earlier notions of writing styles, including an earlier paper by Hayes and Flower** on the writing process from 1980. I’ve not yet read that one, but according to Van Waes and Schellens, they make a distinction between “Mozartian” and “Beethovian” writers; the former of whom plan out their work in detail, and the latter rush through their first draft and revise later — the more familiar terms these days are “planners” vs. “pantsers”, but I intend to adopt the prior terms as somehow more august. ;)

They also outline four writing profiles from Hayes and Flower in a way that I haven’t seen before, of people writing longhand. (I’m just going to quote Van Waes and Schellens here instead of rephrasing)

1. Depth first, in which the writer tries to produce a perfect first sentence, then a perfect second sentence, and so on. That is, the writer completes the work of planning, implementing and reviewing each sentence before starting to work on the next.

2. Postponed review, in which the writer writes down his/her thoughts as they occur and reviews them later.

3. Perfect first draft, in which the writer tries to generate a perfect first draft. Planning is very explicit and directed towards the text as a whole.

4. Breadth first, in which a draft is planned and then written out in full before any revision is contemplated.

Now, this is about student composition, I gather, so shorter works than most fiction. I find, on reflection, that my handwriting style tends to fit pretty squarely in #4: I plan the hell out of the story, maybe even sketching out a few sections, then sit down and write with little revision. This ignores my habit of eventually abandoning the handwritten word for the typed one (usually midway through) but even in typing I’m not far off from that.

The interesting thing about this (at least, to me) is that I know that I used to follow #2, at least to the extent of the chapter/scene level. I’d have a general sense of where I wanted things to go, and might make notes about neat ideas, but otherwise I’d tear on through and not even re-read until much later.

I can see fiction writers attempting #3, especially for flash fiction. But #1 is a puzzle to me — I don’t even know how that *could* work. It seems like a recipe for misery to even try writing that way. To my mind, the sentence is just not the unit of composition, and writing at the level of perfecting individual sentences as I go… I think that I would very quickly lose track of what I intended to write. Do any of you write this way? How do you make it work?

Van Waes and Schellens then discuss a more recent paper, by Schwartz***, who established nine basic profiles. These profiles, they note, overlap and need not be consistent across a work, but may vary from paragraph to paragraph. (Again, I’m quoting Van Waes and Schellens)

1. Language production and regeneration profiles, in which the writer either writes down more than is needed and then reduces it later (the ‘overwriter’); or economizes on the initial text and then adds more later (the ‘underwriter’).

2. Structural reformulation profiles, in which the writer rejects the text and starts again (the ‘restarter’); or rejects it, making only a few changes (the ‘recopier’); or pieces together old sections into a new structure (the ‘re-arranger’); or builds on the original structure (the ‘remodeler’).

3. Content reassessment profiles, in which the writer is concerned with the pro- priety of the text (the ‘censor’); or with its accuracy (the ‘refiner’); or with the correctness of its form (the ‘copy-editor’).

I can much more easily find myself in these profiles: by and large, I’m an overwriter when it comes to dialogue and an underwriter of description. I’m an avowed re-arranger; the other three profiles in that section just seem weird and wrong to me. As for the last, I’ve sat here thinking for a few minutes and I don’t really know which I am. I think that I tend to revise most with an eye to form: I mostly don’t give a damn about propriety (even for academic papers, it rarely even occurs to me) and accuracy, to my mind, is properly a function of the first draft.

Anyway, I’ve blathered on quite a bit. Let me turn it over to you folks who haven’t fallen asleep: are you handwriters or typists? Mozartists or Beethovians? Do you write perfect sentence-by-perfect sentence, then revise to censor? Or do you get it all down, then rewrite from scratch a few times?

* Luuk Van Waes, Peter Jan Schellens, 2003, Writing profiles: the effect of the writing mode on pausing and revision patterns of experienced writers.

** Hayes, John R., Flower, Linda, 1980. Identifying the organization of writing processes.

*** Schwartz, Mimi, 1983. Revision profiles: patterns and implications.

 
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Posted by on 6 February, 2011 in Writing

 

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Five In, Five Out

I just sent in my fifth fiction submission of the new year. If you count the one that’s waiting on a February submissions opening, I have five stories actively on the market. That’s not bad, but looking at what’s in progress, I’m going to have trouble keeping that up: I’m pretty thoroughly stalled out on my projects.

I have one short story in the works, a sort of zombie invasion story. I really like the premise, but it’s in a rut until I figure out something very important to the plot. Basically: I’ve got my characters up a tree, I’ve thrown a bunch of rocks at them… and I have no idea how to get them down. (I won’t give details here because I don’t really want suggestions)

The novel is stumbling along. I have what I think is an interesting plot, but I’m not so sure anymore that the characters are, particularly the protagonist. Obviously, that’s a bit of a problem. Not sure yet how to fix it.

Anyhow, that’s how things are going for me. How are you all doing? Are the words flowing freely?

 
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Posted by on 23 January, 2011 in Writing

 

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Writer vs. Author (Poll)

I had a fascinating conversation with a friend of mine the other day about the preferred term for someone who writes. I had always had a vague impression that the term “author” was the more pretentious term for writing (particularly fiction) but my friend (who is free to identify herself in comments; I just can’t get ahold of her to ask permission right now) preferred the term “author”… for almost exactly the same reason.

Now I’m curious, for those of you who write anything (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, dishwasher repair manuals, whatever) Do you consider yourself more a “writer” or an “author”. Why?

 
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Posted by on 18 January, 2011 in Writing

 

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