Modern writing- Getting out of the straitjacket

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I happen to loathe formula writing. I refuse to read it. I’m tired of plodding through boring written theatricals. I think it’s archaic, restrictive and incredibly dull. Narrative, description, plot lines; exactly like real life, it ain’t. In real life people get thrown into situations. Qualifiers are not provided. Scenes exist, they’re not stage managed.

For example:

The very first line in my first book is “The fungoid looked pleased with itself.”

OK- What does a pleased fungus look like?

That line was designed to throw a brick at all these descriptors with which modern literature is so horribly stained. The book goes on to specifically not describe in any way all of the characters in it. Any description of apperance has to go through the reader's mind, and the descriptions aren't very informative. Half a million words later, one of them is called “ash blonde”, but nobody will ever know which one. The Threat-Hamster series is an ongoing effort to find and destroy every literary convention and every patronizing, abusive and intrusive attack on the right of writers and readers to have fun.

Theory says readers need orientation. Presumably they might get lost in the books, and never find their way out. Show me a person who’s ever wanted to find their way out of a good book and I’ll show you a liar. Readers go looking for something new by definition. They’re explorers. They don’t need to be told they’re reading something new, or that the story will be about something new.

The chance, however, is that they might never want to find their way in, if they have to go back to kindergarten to be allowed to read the books:

To mangle a few analogies:

One upon a time, there was a girl. Her name was Goldilocks. She went into other people’s houses. She ate soup, criticized the furniture and had blonde hair. She was going about her normal business when she came to the house of the Three Bears. It was a simple town house with ensuite soup, warehouse sale priced beds and had a garage full of Ferraris. Goldilocks had always wanted to meet a bear who owned a Ferrari…

Riveting, isn’t it? There’s even some innuendo, in case the reader is in danger of waking up. Leave out the motives, the property descriptions and the hair, and you have the original story. But you’re not allowed to write like that. You must include these things, or readers will get lost, and possibly go and do something they actually like doing. Perhaps even breed. Obviously, this has to be prevented at all costs.

The trouble with conventional writing theory is that it has been turned into a bureaucratic process. Story elements are now part of the shopping list. Characters must fit the story, the same way people are always relevant in real life. Everybody you know is part of everything, all the time. Characters are inert and irrelevant unless forming part of the story. Just like in real life. They get put into storage for use as required.

The big breakthrough in conventional writing came when people in books were allowed to be people. The two dimensional characters became credible for a moment. They soon put a stop to that, twisting and tying people around storylines. Of course the shopkeeper is a closet sadist. Naturally the hairdresser is a member of a terrorist organization. Actually, that’s just what shopkeepers and hairdressers do as part of their work, but let’s not go nuts with definitions. It’s enough to say that characters are good or bad.

Protagonists- Everyone has a protagonist, but nobody actually is a protagonist. How many people do you know who’ll become protagonists at the slightest excuse? The dumb and the obnoxious, but not many others. Most people have more useful things to do with their time than fit in to a story line. Odd, isn’t it?

Yet conventional theory says you must have protagonists. Actually, most people tend to be more obstructive than directly hostile. They also avoid issues as much as they can, evading plot lines and disappearing when you need someone to be shot to keep the story trundling along. They don’t naturally get into gun battles, fistfights or other useful story mechanisms.

Motive- There’s a reason for everything in conventional writing. It may not be a good reason, or even a credible reason, but there it will be. It will sit up on its hind legs and provide explanations. That’s all a motive usually does. The motive, naturally, will be as simple as possible. Sex, money or ego generally cover the basics.

Why restrict an unlimited creative field with such tedious theories? Why inflict readers with yet another stroll through the banal? Is there some deep desire to patronize readers to death, or is it just the usual “can’t be bothered” approach to creating media product we all appreciate so much?

The reasons, such as they are, are a bit more predictable:

People are trained to write like that. A lot of writers slavishly absorb these theories, and quite literally don’t know how to write any other way. Any talent they may have is buried under theory.

Everyone in media assumes that writers are geniuses and that the readers are idiots. Nothing could possibly be further from the truth, but that’s market policy.

Writers are quite prepared to be considered geniuses. The alternative descriptors are far less flattering, and worse, much more accurate. The idea that they produce their books like production line workers is also a truth they’re trying to avoid, so “genius” covers it all quite nicely.

Writers are also capable of being credulous idiots when their works are described by others as significant. Goldilocks or a typical cloned character could be described as the “essential blonde”, the “bear-molesting tramp” and “a great case for meaningful dialogue between bears and humans”. Utter tripe, but it's ego-fodder.

The writer will lap it up because it takes their turgid tale out of the mundane and into that fuzzy place where everyone fawns on writers. Of course their story is about typical poor oppressed billionaires struggling with raising a family. They’re performing a valuable social task, bringing the truth to the masses. They see themselves leading a mob to Washington to demand that human dignity is returned to the billionaires.

The story about a girl who becomes a supermodel is a social breakthrough at work, showing girls how to enter a fabulous industry of wonderful people and make lots of lovely money which means they’ve become the fictional version of themselves. The poor migrant tale will overlook the fact that most migrants remain poor for generations, and stick to the fable about instant success through hard work. It’s fast food for a writer’s self-image which has no other plausible reason to exist.

Readers, poor souls, really do prefer to think they’re reading something worth reading written by somebody who is actually trying to write a good book.

The fact is that conventional writing has buried itself in self-serving theory at all levels. Marketing, pompous academic themes and a quite undeserved mythos of the natural greatness of writers which is instantly negated by theory does the rest. Few if any of the classics could have been written with modern writing theory.

Do you remember when reading was fun and genuinely exciting, opening up new lines of thought and dreams? Do you remember when writers could really pull you into a story, and you refused to put down the book?

Those writers didn’t write the way conventional theory forces them to write. Heller threw away the rules with Catch 22. The writers of Freakonomics discarded the excruciatingly dull formats and rules for non-fiction. They wrote something which made a quite difficult subject well worth reading. They even made statistics comprehensible, unlike just about every other publication ever made on that subject, and economics a respectable subject for people with their own vocabularies.

Every so often, good writers just smash through theory and write something worth reading. The common denominator is that they kept the fun in and threw the ponderous garbage out.

To me, that’s the way to go. I’m going to keep right on writing the way I do. I may even admit there are subjects in my books, but don’t hold your breath.

To quote Clausewitz:

Pity the theory that comes into opposition with the mind!

Pity the literature that comes into opposition with good reading, too.


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Comments 7 comments

Website Examiner 4 years ago

I enjoyed your thoughts and presentation. I see your point. However, for you to be writing and selling books this way must represent an extra challenge. Your work may not be that easy to review. So unless you were to become a literary legend, building an audience for your books may take some time.


Paul Wallis profile image

Paul Wallis 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Website Examiner- Not wrong there. The way I see it, I have a choice between being an honest writer, trying to do my best, or a machine, not doing anything which I'd see as real writing. I know how to write "market standard" but really couldn't claim to be trying if I did. No real option. I'd hope any reviewers would see my stuff for what it is, an attempt, however good or bad, to break new ground.


Curiad profile image

Curiad 4 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

This is a great look into what you think and feel about writing. I find it refreshing and honest.


MzChaos profile image

MzChaos 4 years ago from Indianapolis

I think where proper formatting comes into play is taking a story from A to Z and getting the work done with some quality. Jim Butcher is a great author who felt similar to what you have described above. He had a teacher tell him over and over if he would just follow the format, he would be able to publish. To prove how wrong she was...he wrote the first story for the Harry Desden series. Needless to say it was a huge success. Here is the thing. As a writer, knowing where the comma's go and what makes a good character, and sentence structure is one thing...being creative about how we put those together is a skill and a talent. I don't like a story to tell me things I can figure out for myself. In fact, if you keep asking in the story the questions I am asking in my head...for me, that makes you a crappy writer. You have done the work of putting the story down in a way that I am asking the question...for the author to ask it then...makes it seem like the reader is stupid. You have to be true to yourself and your writing style first and foremost...but learning the proper formatting, can only make your work stronger in my opinion. And remember, rules are made to be broken...isn't that what they say?


Paul Wallis profile image

Paul Wallis 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

MzChaos- Yes. "Writing down" to people is a real insult. It doesn't even let them have fun reading. These rules are a bureaucratized version of a sort of "publisher's shopping list". They've never had anything to do with good writing or good reading.


wingedcentaur profile image

wingedcentaur 4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

Hello Paul Wallis. Its me again!

Perhaps its just my personality structure (Myers-Briggs INFJ) but I like to deep-read a "hubber" I recently "discover," instead of flit about, like most do, drop a comment here, another there, and so on, without establishing any coherence of commentary, if you know what I mean.

That is, I like to establish a kind of coherence of commentary, and one can't do that by flitting about (which, I'm sure people do for the expert commenter accolade---though their comments never seem to be very substantive...). But anyway, I see that you like to write a good deal about... writing. That's what I like about you, Mr. Wallis.

I certainly take your point about descriptions, not liking to use them in your work. I prefer to imagine what a character "looks like," for example, from the way she talks and acts. The mistake some authors make in going overboard with descriptions like this, seems to be an assumption that the reader, somehow, wants an audio/visual experience. But reading is not visual in the visual sense, as in watching a movie.

I think there are some writers who think they are, somehow, "competing" with movies and television, and somehow, want to make their fiction as filled-in as possible, leaving nothing to the imagination. To my way of thinking, this is part of what you called "orientation."

You wrote about how the publishing world, these days, seem to treat the adult reading public like children, in a way, insisting on describing everything in mind-numbing detail, giving us "orientation," so that we don't get "lost" in the book; but as you said, any reader worth his salt should want to get "lost" in a book worth getting lost in.

Last time I asked you for your thoughts on the efficacy of college courses in creative writing. Your answer surprised me: You said that creativity had to be taught even if one is born with it, and so forth.

But, if the goal of each writer is or should be to avoid convention, is there any efficacy in writing courses, in your opinion, since, by definition, students will always be being invested with convention, someone's convention?

Take it easy. :D


Paul Wallis profile image

Paul Wallis 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Yeah, I'm INTJ. Creativity has to be to some point self taught, learned and incorporated into your life, to be really understood. In fairness, writing courses can give people some understanding of the process, the business, teach them the basics, and give them a bit of inertia to start.

Writing needs to be self-propelled to a large extent, and that, naturally, comes from within. That definitely can't be taught. You also have to learn about yourself and how you react to your own writing. Complex, and time consuming. A college course takes a few years, learning this part takes a decade or so at least.

The problem is that breaking out of convention is also what leads to writing success. Mills and Boon authors could be the best in the world, but they still have that stamp on them. There are built in limitations. That can't be right for any art form. I'll spare you the ideology. Thanks for the kind words, again.

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