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On Writing

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message 1: by J.G. Keely (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:24AM) (new)

J.G. Keely (keely) | 15 comments Mod
Well, I've tried to sit down and make a post a couple times this week, but between work and the heat, it's been a but of a losing endeavor. I just wanted to bring to everyone's attention an interesting resource I came across recently.

It's basically a collection of different story concepts, and even if you aren't a writer, I think you may still find it interesting. There is a bit of a caveat given on the site, that when one becomes familiar with a lot of the concepts illustrated within, it becomes difficult to enjoy a lot of movies, shows and books.

I already feel this way about a lot of entertainment, since concepts like the monomyth are so over-used (in smaller genres and mediums such as comic books or sci fi, the cliches seem even more rife). So, take the warning and hopefully you will find something that will aid your journey through literature.

If you feel like making a response, I'm curious how people think of the state of writing in general. Are things good? Are most writers good? Do you find you can enjoy any book, or only very few? What do you value in a story?

Also, feel free to start threads yourselves if you get an idea. I'd rather have a lot of half-baked but interesting ideas than one perfectly described and supported post.

message 2: by J.G. Keely (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:24AM) (new)

J.G. Keely (keely) | 15 comments Mod
Oh, I suppose I should elucidate my own opinions on The State of Literature since we're all free thinkers here. One of the nice thing about working with free-thinkers is that you don't have to worry that you have infected their opinions with your own starting arguments.

I find that the majority of works I encounter, be they comics, film, or whatever, are very simplistic. I see this as a symptom of the fact that authorship does not require expertise or study, and that impressing 'the mob' is rarely about well-thought ideas or expression.

Once one begins to look at the patterns in storytelling, it can indeed ruin things you once enjoyed. I, for example, used to read a lot of Series Fantasy in middle school. At the time, I didn't understand enough about the nature of writing to recognize that almost all of them were loosely-plotted, relied on arbitrary story elements, and utilized the most overused character types.

Upon returning to some of these books after getting my English degree and reading Milton, Virgil, Chekhov, Pope, and the like, I found that my old loves now bored me intensely. Within the first tenth of the book, I could see the author's intentions and predict the rest of the book. However, I am also not much for modern literature, which may have excellent psychology and a sensical plot, but which builds those characters and that plot from the most uninspired and uninspiring events (i.e. real life).

So, I would say that the majority of works are made by people who think they are doing something interesting, but haven't looked around enough to see what has already been done. Hence, they merely re-invent the wheel and pat themselves on the back for it.

message 3: by Mandy (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:25AM) (new)

Mandy Stigant | 4 comments The Modern State of Literature is a pretty general issue. I don't tend to keep terribly up to date with what's hot (except for Harry Potter, and come July 21 we'll all be free of worry and can move on with our muggly lives); I still haven't given in to the Dan Brown craze, etc.

When I assess the quality of a book, I suppose the context of the thing plays a major part in what I think of it. For example, I also used to read alot of Series Fantasy when I was in High School, namely Dragonlance. Yes, they are formulaic, simple, simply written, use simple language. They can be predictable and even cute. What we have to keep in mind with these books is that their target audience is a 15-year old boy. Even better, a 15-year old D&D gaming boy. Taking that into consideration, the simplistic nature of the books is excusable, even appropriate, and moving beyond that, the world created in those books is actually pretty complicated and well thought-out and developed. The series is rigidly consistent with itself -- it doesn't break its own rules -- and therefore remains coherent and believable (believable in terms of the world of the book). They're not bad books -- but they're books ideally read at the teenage level, or if we read them later on in life, we should assess them at the teenage level. When you raise the bar too high for your expectations of sophisticated writing quality, all you do is diminish your capacity to enjoy the book.

The thing about Milton, Homer, Shakesy, et al is that they were masters in their time (masters enough to last through the ages so we still read them today). They wrote (or spoke in the case of Homer) works that were not only powerful, but shaping to western civilization. They literally helped form the way we still think today. These are works to be read, re-read, analyzed, delved into, torn apart and pieced back together again. These are the things people today write their dissertations about, constantly adding new thoughts in a continuing dialogue about the impact and meaning these writers used to punch us in the gut. Series Fantasy has not such lofty goals, and to compare them to the Great Books seems like a moot point, much less to expect them to measure up to such a high bar.

Since this is supposed to be more about comic books, I'll leave off prose and epic poetry for a moment. I think Comic Books as a genre is still a bit young for us to know exactly what will last, who all the masters are that will still be read in 200 years and more. We have the good stuff and the crap, like in any literary period, for any genre. I think writers like Gaiman will last long past their time, as well as Alan Moore -- though I think he has been outdone since his hey-day. But it's hard to say.

message 4: by J.G. Keely (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:25AM) (new)

J.G. Keely (keely) | 15 comments Mod
Hmm, I would have to posit that undersimplification is rarely the problem with books. I don't see why a book should be judged differently for younger people as for adults, except in matters of things that young people cannot comprehend. I have known children who have read Shakespeare, Homer, and many other complex texts. Their facility for learning language at that age is much stronger than ours.

There are also a lot of examples of texts which do translate to adulthood due to their complexity, but which are still accessible to people of a young age. For example: Calvin and Hobbes, Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Suess, Shel Silverstein, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, or the Loony Toons. As a child, I always found works of greater complexity to be more fulfilling and interesting, even if I could not fully understand them.

I think that by allowing things to be 'dumbed down' we instead create a cyclical effect whereby the children are not given a chance to experience and understand more complex stories and characters.

Likewise, one can read Tolkien as a teen and have that same fantastic experience that all the series fantasy tries to re-create, but Tolkien also has enough depth and complexity to last into adulthood. The Hitchiker's Guide series would be another good example; I first read that when I was 8 and enjoyed it as much at 22.

I think this is an extremely important concern with modern comics, especially in America. A lot of people consider comics to be 'for kids' and translate that to mean 'oversimplified and silly', but I think that writing good books for children (or teens) is a much more complex and difficult task than writing for adults. If the American comic industry is to escape the notion that these books are 'kid's stuff', then they'll need to make stories that will transition with those kids to adulthood, even for adults who learn to parse complex stories.

I read and enjoyed a lot of Dragonlance books, as well; and many of them are above the curve, as far as genre fantasy goes, but as for series continuity, I wouldn't argue that. Weis and Hickman had to make numerous restarts and retcons throughout. For every really good Dragonlance book, there are usually two or three that Jump The Shark with world-shaking events and 'new realizations' about your favorite characters.

message 5: by Mandy (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:25AM) (new)

Mandy Stigant | 4 comments Oh, I'm not trying to say there isn't very fulfilling, better literature than Series Fantasy out there for young people. My brother and I grew up with my parents reading the Just So Stories or Roald Dahl to us. But comparing Dragonlance to Tolkien or Homer, or trying to hold it to the same standards of literary mastery, is a bit like comparing Dumb and Dumber to Schindler's List. No, it's not deep, thought-provoking or even illuminating, but that's not to say it doesn't have its value. Put very simply, it's entertaining -- stuff to kill your taxed brain cells on. And there really is a good place for that kind of writing in the world. Fluff books aren't important in themselves, but it's important for us to have fluff to read every now and then. Dragonlance is fluff for the fifteen-year olds, whereas the Great Books -- at whichever age they're read -- are where we turn for true quality and intellectual, spiritual and emotional growth. That's all.

When I rate any given book I read, part of what I consider is a) whether it's fluff or to be taken seriously, and b)if it's fluff, does the writer realize it and are they being true to their fluffy selves? There's nothing more annoying than a Fluff book taking itself seriously and thinking it's deeper than it is (insert barb on Terry Goodkind here)

It seemed like the original set of stories with Dragonlance -- The Chronicles, then the Twins Trilogy -- were very consistent. After those they left off the series and let a whole slew of mindless-drek-writers churn out books by the dozen which were, well, mindless drek. Then Weiss and Hickman seemed like they were trying to get stuff back on track -- but I'm not one to say; i had lost interest in the books by then and quit trying to keep up with them.

message 6: by J.G. Keely (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:26AM) (new)

J.G. Keely (keely) | 15 comments Mod
Hmm, well, I guess I don't separate the good from the chaff. I put it all on a scale, because it seems to me that a lot of the 'great stuff' falls flat and some of the 'fluff' can really rise above. Classics never start as classics. Shakespeare was the 'Family Guy' of his day: every other line is a joke about farting or cheating on people. He used a lot of standard methods and storylines. The 'obscure' references he used were no more obscure to the people of his age than all those 1980s shows Family Guy references in the modern age; and those references will seem even more obscure to future generations.

Indeed, playwriting was not considered to be a passtime for people with art or meaning on their mind, that was left to the poets. However, something that starts as Romance or Pulp can rise to artistry through the skill of the author.

That's why I don't separate. I see every author in every genre as having the capability to reach out to us in a strong and beautiful voice and change the way we look at things. I don't think the setting, character type, or message limit the ability of any work to be great.

This sometimes upsets my writer roomate, who doesn't like to be compared to Milton.

Goodkind was actually the first thing I thought while reading that, what with his "re-inventing the novel" (another form that was, at first, considered unworthy of art). However, I must point out Christopher Paolini (of 'Eragon') made the assertion that he was "somewhere between Tolkien at his best and Seamus Heaney", combined with the actually quality of his writing, may take that cake.

Some of the other Dragonlance books were interesting (Elven Nations Trilogy, for example), but most of them did go completely crazy. I was a D&D fanboy back then, fyi.

I think comics are one an excellent example of the point, as they are a genre that many people consider to be entirely 'fluff', but the authors who are remembered for their storylines and creations are always the ones who raised it above that, even before the 80's boom and Brit Invasion.

P.S. thanks for posting with me so I'm not just here soliloquizing.

message 7: by David (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:26AM) (new)

David | 4 comments Mod
A man looks away for ten minutes and a fascinating conversation explodes on him.

First, I must agree with Keely, and how unexpected. There is no need to separate the books we hand to children and literature. The entire genre of Young Adult fiction is in itself a fiction. It’s a category on the shelves. Look who reads Harry Potter. Most of the Serial Fantasy novels aren’t even YA novels. They’re classified as Adult Fiction.

Yet, still there is so terribly little there. Quick divergence.

One of my friends, a man by the name (last) of Kempenich is busy writing a novel. I don’t know how many pages now, somewhere around fifty.

He really likes talking with me about it. About the culture, the plot, the characters. Every time we do, “I think new things about the things I think about”, he tells me. I spent the evening talking him out of naming the secret group of Assassins-for-Hire in his world “The Brethren”. This was one of the easy sells. Mostly, he just hasn’t thought about the implications of what he does. This “literature”, these books, are written for adults, by adults. Those of us who suffer through them deal with it by pretending it’s all read by “Children”.


I used to read Forgotten Realms books. I did so because I had some Forgotten Realms D&D material. I quiet when I discovered fiction written by Authors who didn’t have the constraints that are placed on what are literally “Main-Line” Novels. If you think Superman can’t really die, look at Drizzt.

I spend a fair chunk of my time keeping up on Publishing. It deserves a capital, because I’m staring down the throat of big business. Big business sells what sells. Good books and bad. Really, it sells what has name recognition. The problem is, name recognition doesn’t come from cycling through a lot of new authors, panning for gold. It comes from selling already popular titles.

This is why there is, mostly in Fantasy and Sci Fi, a certain drag. There is a huge collection of good, solid, excellent short fiction in the genre each year, but publishers are willing to risk a short piece.

On the subject of consistency in the main-line work. That’s for editors. Yes, the stories are consistent, but the world isn’t. DragonLance, for example, is obsessed with steel. Their coins are made of this "precious" metal. Ignoring the fact that no one would EVER make a coin out of steel, for a dozen good metallurgic reasons, no one in the book ever seems to comment on its shortage. Maybe a few lines, but it’s not there. Steel is supposed to be color, but it comes of as not colorful.

Authors of Fantasy Literature don’t, for the most part, understand the influences on them that sculpt their often pseudo-medieval world. Keely said they pat themselves for reinventing the wheel. I’d say most stroke themselves.

I read non-fiction these days. I’m consistently surprised by the craziness, the richness, of our world. There are concepts that I’d have been floored to read about in a fantasy novel happening daily in Bombay. Baby Renters, who rent babies by the hour to beggars.

Writing good fantasy should require the most work of almost any literature. Consistently, I find it’s taking the least. That alone is the problem with it.

message 8: by J.G. Keely (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:26AM) (new)

J.G. Keely (keely) | 15 comments Mod
Well, I think there is certainly a lack of authors who are conscientious about the act of creation and the methods which make that up. Statements like those made by Paolini and Goodkind show a basic disregard for what makes a good author. In their vocal disdain for other fantasy works and refusal to include themselves with those works we see authors who are unaware of the genre they are trying to tackle.

In the Turkey City Lexicon ( , a sort of authorial intent statement by workshops of Sci Fi authors, there is an observation about 're-inventing the wheel' (which inspired my statement). They stated that many Sci Fi authors who are not well-read within the genre will often try to tackle concepts that have already been addressed superbly by other authors. They imagine themselves to be doing an excellent job, but in fact are merely ignorant of their competition.

I think the majority of 'fluff' is created by authors who are simply unfamiliar with what has been done before, and on how a story is created. Looking at comparative mythologists like Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp, we see that an analysis of works proves extremely fruitful in understanding how the process of writing becomes a series of recognized patterns which, by following or betraying, an author makes statements.

That betrayal of the accepted trope can be one of the most powerful tools that any author has. Not only in cases of Parody and Satire, but in pure exploration of the medium. Authors like Alan Moore, Neal Gaiman, and Grant Morrison have created the bulk of their work by specifically betraying those concepts. People can do this naturally, but the rest of us non-geniuses will have to make do with carefully constructing our works.

Likewise, recognition of these elements is as important for a reader as it is for an author. I realize that people read things for many different reasons; many of them for escapism or simple entertainment. For them, an understanding is not what they seek, and reading endless fantasy permutations of the monomyth suits them fine. I suppose you could type them as 'fluff readers', who commit to a lower level of reading as some writers do to a lower level of writing. However, once one begins to learn the process by which stories are created and the meaning that results, both reader and author may find it difficult (and entirely unsatisfying) to return to that former repetition.

message 9: by Mandy (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:26AM) (new)

Mandy Stigant | 4 comments On Fluff. I suppose I am a little bit of a Fluff reader, every now and then. The thing is, after reading something serious, thought-provoking and even emotionally taxing, I can't go immediately into another book that's serious, thought-provoking and emotionally taxing. I have to let the first one sink in for awhile, think about it, etc. But I don't want to leave off reading altogether. So in the meantime I'll read something light and stupid, because it's something to read while I'm thinking about the other book, and it doesn't get in the way of thinking about it because it's a stupid book in itself and doesn't bear much pondering. That's the use of Fluff for me -- it lets me keep reading but it also lets my brain rest at the same time. Very useful in that regard.

An example of this is when I read C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy -- I read the first two on top of each other, which were pretty quick reads, and having enjoyed them I launched into That Hideous Strength, which is written at a different pace and with different methods than the first two, and is decidedly harder to read -- mostly because it feels closer to home in its tackling of humanity and evil. That aside, I realized about 60 pages in that I wasn't going to gain what I could out of it without letting the other two sink in and rest first. Luckily the next Harry Potter came out right then, so I had something else to pick up in the meantime.

Arg! I love and hate geniuses for that very reason. Love them because they're, well, geniuses, but when they make their craft look so damn easy, people look at it and figure they can do it too without trying! It makes me crazy! So many pulp writers don't understand the full gamut of education, research, years of skill-honing and wrestling with publishing companies that it takes to write a really decent book. There's a poet, Billy Collins, who is the opposite of these would-be geniuses. I don't read a whole lot of poetry, but his imagery and flow are bafflingly good . . . but then you realize after reading a lot of it that it's an insane amount of skill and practice, rigid meter and language-mastery that goes into making his language look so easy. It's through understanding the full range and rules of standard meter that he is able to break those rules and launch into his own voice. I almost admire the non-geniuses who work up to that point more than those who start there naturally.

I wouldn't call Neil Gaiman a genius either. He's been reading and writing from the time he could hold a book and a pencil, and he's probably very much self-taught, but I would sooner put him with those writers who honestly worked their balls off to get to the point of being as good a writer as he's become. Also, you can see a progression in his work -- it's not all gold and roses. He sometimes puts out, you know, silver and daffodils instead.

message 10: by J.G. Keely (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:27AM) (new)

J.G. Keely (keely) | 15 comments Mod
I agree with you about Gaiman. He is certainly a great writer and capable of making inspiring works, but it seems that without the support of his laborious research, he often falls flat. This means that, like Shakespeare, he relies upon external stories and merely re-structures them around different ideas. This is markedly different from authors who are a font of creativity themselves, like Tolkien or Morrison. Though both of them derive some inspiration from the world, they usually transform that inspiration into something completely new and unrecognizable, instead of simply transmitting the idea.

It seems that it is important for us to try to define what we are meaning by the term 'fluff'. It seems that you define it as any text which can be enjoyed without thinking much about it. This definition seems to rely heavily on the ability of the reader to decipher said text. Hence, I may consider a lot more Genre Fantasy to be 'fluff' than someone simple because I have read so much of it.

I also wouldn't necessarily call Harry Potter fluff, as it is exploring the genre on a different tack. It may have sub-par worldbuilding, but it has strong characters, and the requisite growth for a good bildungsroman.

I find that there are a lot of books that, while conceptually complex and perhaps psychologically true, I would not rate high against even a lot of Genre Fantasy. This is, of course, the other half of the fact that I do not separate the 'greats' from the 'fluff': sometimes, the fluff wins out.

One problem that I have with a lot of modern works is that they generally fail at exploration of possibility or concept. By trying to represent 'real life' and the small and tragic, a lot of them lose any sense of artistry or flare. I think that writing realism without actually falling into the fact that 'real' is often boring is one of the most difficult tasks of any author. I see books like 'A Catcher in the Rye' and 'Ordinary People' fall into this trap of being supposedly thought-inspiring, but actually mostly boring and didactic.

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