Saving The World vs. Kissing The Girl

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Lindsay Doran isn’t a writer, but an executive and producer (Spinal Tap, Dead Again, Stranger than Fiction, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Naked Gun, Ghost). She gave a good TED talk on what movies are really about:

Summary: People don’t care about achievements, they care about relationships. The success at the “end” of a movie isn’t an end until we see its impact on relationships.

She’s right that a good story is about “a thing and another thing”, a plot and its personal significance. The “other thing” isn’t always a relationship. In “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” the “other thing” is personal growth.

(Her take on Rocky is odd. IMHO the Rocky-Adrian relationship isn’t powerful enough to bear the weight she attributes to it, and the achievement in the end is beating the world champion in a fight. Rocky doesn’t “win” the fight, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t accomplish what he wanted to. He proved himself, and he realized the actual achievement was more important than whether or not the boxing authorities acknowledged it. But though she might have chosen a dubious main example, her point is still good.)

She was mentioned in the Black List blog a little while ago for a completely different theory she calls the Three Rules of Drama, on what a movie should be:

It must address the question, “How should we live?”
It must address the question, “How does the universe work?”

It must be arresting and amusing to the drunk.

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Live A Meaningless Life

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Some stories collided in my mind and produced a thought. I have written two short stories in the past that cover life and meaning. In one of them a character realizes that being a professional student isn’t enough to build a life on, and searches for meaning to her life.  In the other the main character discovers she’s living in a simulation built for other peoples’ entertainment.

Lots of people say they want their life to have a purpose.  In the second story, the character’s life really does have a purpose.  Which I think proves that everyone who says they want their life to have purpose, or meaning, is lying.  A purpose is either someone else’s purpose, which you have been assigned – which turns out to be very unpleasant! – or it’s your own purpose, which you have constructed.  Most of the people who say they want to have a purpose, don’t really want the first kind and would be very upset if they found out they had one; and they reject the second kind – that’s why they’re talking about wanting a purpose in the first place!  Otherwise they’d simply make one up.

You know who never worries about what their life’s purpose or meaning is? Kids. Because they’re busy having fun. We start worrying about our purpose when we get older and life starts sucking and being boring and we look for quick, easy, mental tricks to play on ourselves to not mind it so much.  Looking for a purpose makes it sound like you’re doing something exciting. But actually finding you had one would be horrible.

If you’re looking for a meaning to your life, it’s just a sign that you aren’t having fun anymore.  Stop looking for meaning, and have some fun.

Always Take Bad Advice

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You can only learn so much by only taking advice that you think is good. If you think it’s good you already understand the advice and you aren’t gaining anything. You become mentally stagnant because you never take a moment to consider something that sounds like bad advice might actually be good advice you just don’t understand. That, even if it’s bad it might be just what you need.

There is an endless amount of knowledge one can learn through experience but if you limit yourself to only what you think makes sense then how much are you really getting out of each experience? Odds are that the things you don’t yet know will probably sound like bad advice. Frankly, most advice is bad advice, but if you take some losses following advice that sounds bad, you might learn things you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. It may be bitter at times and sure it might get you into trouble but at the end of the day I’d bet you’ll have grown more as an individual than you would have taking the ‘good‘ advice. Just from taking that bit of bad advice.

Things To Avoid In Stories

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From “LETTER FROM THE PULITZER FICTION JURY” by Michael Cunningham:

We loved each of the authors for their triumphs over the forces of banality, contrivance, predictability, thinness, falseness, randomness, tidiness, and all the other forces that defeat almost everyone reckless enough to write fiction at all.

That’s a pretty good list of things to look out for in writing. He gave a specific example later on:

A third fell under the wheel (and this one was particularly heartbreaking to all of us) when we reluctantly acknowledged that although it was wonderfully written and fabulously inventive, its central love story, while moving, was insufficiently complicated and a bit sentimental; that it failed to depict the body of darker emotions that are integral to love: moments of rage, disappointment, pettiness, and greed, to name a few. All three of us wished love to be as simple as the author imagined it to be, but we acknowledged that love, as far as we could tell, is not only not simple, but that part of its glory is its ability to survive incidents of rage, disappointment, and etc.

Human Nature and Other Nonsense

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When writers talk about what good stories should do, they almost inevitably conclude something like, “Good stories say something about what it means to be human.”

The words vary little. Stories should “tells us what it means to be human,” or “describe the human condition.” Stories “are, in the end, always about humans.”

Bullshit.

What does that even mean? There is such a thing as human nature, even a constant core of human nature that has remained for thousands of years. You can approach any story, from any time period, by looking for what you have in common with the people in it. There will always be something. It certainly helps engage you with a story if you can identify with its characters. But to say a story is “about” human nature is usually a cop-out. Stories are about differences built on top of similarities.

It outlaws science fiction

I’ve always disliked this claim, because I used to want to write science fiction, and what I wanted most was to write about what it might be like not to be human. I read all of Asimov’s robot stories, and watched every episode of Star Trek with Data in it, in the hope that one of them might try to understand what it would be liketo be a robot. I read science fiction hoping to find conceptions of what other, nonhuman life forms might exist. I was generally disappointed. The robot stories were almost inevitably about what it meant to be human, and the best that writers could do to envision non-human intelligent life was to ask “what if there were three sexes?”, “what if people could change sexes?”, or “what if people were like insects?” They never came up with anything as strange as wolves, or even as strange as the Japanese.

It’s escapist bullshit

I have another reason for disliking it: It’s escapist bullshit. I wrote before that the distinctive characteristic of classic fantasy is that it posits a world where the moral rules that we want to believe are universally true, really are universally true.

Fans of “literary” fiction scoff at fantasy’s “escapism” and “childishness” for encouraging people to believe in beautiful lies. Yet those same people pile in on top of each other in their rush to claim that stories bring all people of all races and creeds and cultures together, because there is a universal human nature joining us all together, and literature, the art of mining and purifying that eau de l’homme,  will lead us into a future of universal peace and love.

Escapism much?

It forces you to miss the point of stories

We don’t put on Greek tragedies much, or read 18th-century English novels, because we don’t care about what their audiences cared about, and can’t and don’t want to relate to those people.

To the ancient Greeks, killing, enslaving, and raping people wasn’t just not bad, it was the essence of cool. He who killed, enslaved, and raped the most people was the greatest hero. But there was a competing morality, one which was essential to the Greek city-state: Personal honor. Greek poems and plays were often attempts to refine this concept of personal honor, and show when it was and was not appropriate, and when it took priority over other things, even killing, enslaving, and raping. They were also very concerned with fate and the roles of the Gods in the lives of men.

We can imagine ourselves suffering from what happened to Oedipus Rex, but the story has lost much of its meaning because its obsession with fate versus free will is not relevant to us. To try to read Greek drama as expressions of human universals is a desperate attempt to restore a relevance that has passed.

When I read excerpts from a bunch of popular 18th-century English novels for a speech tags experiment, I was repulsed by their obsession with religious rules. As we’re talking about what good fiction should do, I should be careful generalizing  from novels that struck me as very bad. But whatever issues people had on their minds in England in the 18th century, they examined through the blinders of a strict and pious Christianity. It was embedded in them deeper than their conscious thoughts; it was part of their nature.

I’ve seen people praise Voltaire’s Candide as the perfect satiric novel, but personally I find it boring when it isn’t stomach-churning. It isn’t funny anymore, because the central idea it makes fun of, the idea that we’re living in the best of all possible worlds, is dead. Candide is flogging a dead horse. You can’t bring Candide back to life by working up sympathy for its poor abused characters; in fact, that will just make the novel even more sickening. We no longer have the necessary callousness to really laugh heartily at the suffering in Candide.

The stories of past eras are sometimes like the story of a rabbi concerned about whether it’s permissible to use an elevator on the Sabbath. I can imagine an enjoyable story about the funny foibles of human nature that could lead someone to worry about operating an elevator on the Sabbath. But that doesn’t mean that it is wrong to write a story that is actually about whether it is a sin to press an elevator button on the Sabbath. We will miss most of what the author intended if we insist that the story can’t be about what the author meant for it to be about.

(Don’t whine about the intentional fallacy here. If we deliberately rule out the interpretation that the author intended, we’re going to miss stuff.)

We can imagine ourselves in their shoes. We can see, in a good work of fiction, how we ourselves might have come to feel the same feelings. That isn’t because the stories are about what we all have in common, any more than the fact that we can recognize, in a good story, the operation of the same laws of physics that we enjoy. A character in a story must have motivations that are possible for a human, in the same way that a rock in a story must fall in ways that are possible for rocks. That doesn’t mean that the story is about the universal psychology of humans any more than it’s about the physics of rocks.

Henry James wrote about the difficulties in navigating between the rules of the upper class in England and in America in the 19th century. That is what many of his novels were about. We can still read them, kind of, but they don’t mean as much to us.

Novels aren’t just written about the universality of human nature. A “great literary novel” is more likely to be written about how human behavior is currently changing. To claim that novels are about “the human experience”, rather than about the particular things important to a particular culture at a particular time, is to pretend that literature is timeless and eternal, or at least that your novel is more eternal than you are.

If you write a novel set in the 16th century, with a main character who thinks and acts as people did in the 16th century, you will not sell it. Your editor will make you rewrite it so that the main character thinks like someone from the 20th or 21st century. You can get away with producing a Shakespeare play because Shakespeare was not concerned with the issues that give us trouble today, issues on which the opinions of his characters would repel us, and so he didn’t write about them. You, writing in the 21st century, would find yourself drawn to issues like sexism, racism, class mobility, and equal opportunity, and your characters’ views on these things would horrify your readers.

It is an insult to humanity

I have one final, overriding reason for disliking the claim that literature is about the human experience. It’s deeply insulting to human achievements and culture. The claim that all humans from all cultures are the same, deep down, is the claim that nothing we do matters.

Humans have 10,000 years of cultural achievements. I can’t say that it is all progress. There are pluses and minuses to all cultural components. But the things that we struggle with and argue about, like justice, the distribution of wealth, the purpose of government, our attitude towards women and gays and old people and animals, and the relative claims of individual freedom versus social cohesion — I like to believe that these things matter. They change us. Back in the 19th century, instead of believing in the brotherhood of man, people believed in progress. Whether or not they were right, we can at least recognize that they believed humans could become better than they had been. The idea that there is a universal human nature, and the idea that it makes sense to talk about human progress, are incompatible.

I don’t know about progress, but I believe in the ingenuity and capability of humans to re-create themselves, to mold their societies and themselves into something new. Literature is one of the key tools they have to do this. This is the final reason that I’m not overly fond of reducing all literature to “the human experience”.

As I said, we can still find things that almost all humans have had in common (though not as many as one might have found three thousand years ago) and those things will be in any good story. Those things are the backdrop to a story. Stories are about differences. Saying all stories are about human nature is like saying that shadows are about sunlight, or that playing with Legos is about Lego blocks. It’s true, in a way, but it misses part of the picture.

Writing Quote of the Day: So You Think You’re Smart

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From Jack Bickham, The 38 Most-Common Writing Mistakes, chapter 2, Don’t Consider Yourself Too Smart:

• Do you consider yourself more intelligent than most of the stories and novels you read?

• Do you believe contemporary fiction is sort of beneath you in terms of intellectual attainment?

• Do you figure your readers—when you get them—will be dumb compared to you?

• Do you revel in Proust, adore T. S. Eliot, think there has never been a really great American novelist, and sneer at everything in the popular magazines and the best-sellers lists?

If so, I congratulate you on your self-satisfaction, but warn you that such smug condescension will be the death of you as a writer; at best you’ll one day publish obscure little short stories in giveaway magazines for other small-college English teachers like yourself; at worst, on your death bed, you’ll whisper to your sister the location of your hidden treasure trove of unpublished fiction, and breathe your last in the vain hope that future generations will revere you like they now do Emily Dickinson.

Wouldn’t it be a lot better not to consider yourself so smart? To try to figure out what contemporary readers like—then to work to give them the best stories of that type they ever read?

Do Writers Get Better?

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Recently I heard an author give advice I’ve heard many authors give: “Just keep writing, and you’ll get better.”

Is that true?

I can think of painters who got better over time, like Picasso and Van Gogh.  I can think of bands and composers who got markedly better, at least for a while, like Beethoven, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, and Sting.  But I can only think of a few writers who got better with time: Mark Twain, Jack London, and Tom Stoppard.  Bookplayer, GoH, and toafan say Terry Pratchett has improved, and I defer to their authority on Pratchett, so add him too.  This is still so few that the most likely explanation for their improvement is chance, or poor judgement on my part.

I can think of plenty who wrote an early breakout work and then never rivaled it: Lorraine Hansberry, J.D. Salinger, S.E. Hinton, Stephen Crane, Jorge Luis Borges, Douglas Adams.  I can think of plenty who wrote consistently over their careers from the time they published their first book: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, C. S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, Tom Clancy.  I can think of many who got worse: James Joyce, E.E. Cummings, William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov.  The first story Robert Heinlein ever wrote was about as good as anything he ever wrote.  John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer for his first (and last) novel.

More writers get worse than get better once they’ve been published.  Why?

My theory is that people don’t get any better at anything than they have to be to stop being confronted with failure.  This is why Keannu Reaves is still a bad actor, and so many athletes and beautiful women are poor thinkers.

Writing isn’t like juggling or riding a bicycle.  You can’t tell whether you did it well.  Maybe it’s like non-contact martial arts.  You can spend years kicking the air, but if you never hit anybody, you might be doing it all wrong.

In writing, I’m trying to strike you, dear reader, though not always to hurt you.  The comments let me know what I hit.  Most writers stop workshopping and reading reviews of their works soon after they get published, and they hear little from their readers, which may be why they stop getting better.

But even when I do hear back it isn’t enough for me.  Even where I can detect that I’ve failed I don’t know how to improve.

There are four basic learning methods:  Example, logic, gradient search, and evolution.  By example means you watch someone else and do what they do.  It’s fast!  Logic means you model what you’re doing to predict things that might work better.  It’s not quite as fast.  Gradient search means you can tell whether changing things a little more one way or the other along one dimension will make things better or worse.  It’s quick to improve along dimensions that you’re already aware of, but seldom produces anything surprising.  Evolution means you change things randomly and splice together combinations of things that worked well.  It’s super-slow, but is the most powerful, if you can tell whether something is good or bad.

I use all four methods to try to improve my writing.  I feel like I’m learning all the time.  But mostly, I’m learning how to do better the things I already do well, like plotting.  I’m aware of those; I can see whether I failed or did well.  The things I do poorly, I don’t improve on, because they’re a mystery to me.  Even when I see where someone else has done it well, I can’t put my finger on what makes it better.

The stories I write now are much better than the ones I wrote 20 years ago, but not obviously better than the ones I wrote 15 years ago.

It’s hard to tell because they’re dead to me.  I re-read part of one of these stories, and it seems fake.  The dialogue seems forced; the settings like scenery drawn with markers on cardboard for a grade-school play.  Same for some of my more recent work.  I can see the strings on my puppets.  I can’t laugh at my comedies or feel anything from my sad stories.  The main reason I think they’re any good is that people whose stories I like sometimes tell me they are.  Another is that I keep reading books on writing, and have the naive faith that they must be doing me some good, though when I try to recall what they said I usually can’t remember.  (The third reason is my enormous ego.)

Can writers get better?  If so, how?